Building Readers, Building Relationships

Melissa Cheesman Smith is co-author of The Megabook of Fluency.

As educators, one of the great joys of our profession is building relationships with our students, and encouraging them to build supportive and respectful relationships with one another. We know very well that feeling safe and part of a community within the classroom and the school as a whole is essential for learning to occur and for the emotional health of our children. Building this culture schoolwide can begin in the classroom where students are surrounded by their peers who are accepting and supportive of each other. 

How can we address social-emotional needs through academics? Teachers often rummage to find great resources to teach social-emotional learning in the classroom to support students’ emotional growth.  If fortunate enough, teachers have premade programs containing valuable resources to sort through, but there are everyday practices we may already be doing that help. Choral reading is one example.

In The Megabook of Fluency, we describe how reading is often thought of as a solitary act; however, reading is also a social act. Choral reading, also known as community reading, is the practice of reading a shared text orally. Choral reading is used to increase fluency, but it is also a powerful way to build a sense of community in a classroom as students read together cooperatively for a single purpose. In this scenario, the more fluent readers support the less fluent readers, but the goal is reached together.

Reading as a team builds relationships while building readers.

Repeated reading is at the crux of great fluency practice. When students repeat text through choral reading, they are growing their literacy skills by improving their cognitive focus on the comprehension of the text and building the automaticity to support their reading.

Schools have not only tried this in classrooms, but also across grade levels and even schoolwide.  Students can chorally read well-known songs, poems, or excerpts of speeches, as well as school mottos and mission statements during assemblies to bring about a sense of togetherness and bonding that translates into a more global sense of community within a school.

As students chorally chant, “Four score and seven years ago…” they are cumulatively saying “we are a team and we can work together as readers.” I’ve seen how students who are shy or self-conscious about reading aloud feel supported when their peers are reading right beside them. During choral reading, students are reading in a safe environment where they are supported, cultivating a sense of community, which is so important for all of our learners.

The Megabook of Fluency includes eight variations on choral reading with easy-to-follow visual directions for educators and students, along with appropriate supporting text for each strategy. Sample poems, songs, speeches, and other historical pieces are included to help build cultural literacy and increase vocabulary exposure. While growing our students’ fluency skills, choral reading also helps them build their relationships with one another, and the benefits are limitless.

An example of directions from The Megabook of Fluency:

An example of a choral reading text from The Megabook of Fluency:

2018 National Advisory Council: Why Educational Equity is Everybody’s Business (Part II)

Last month, Scholastic employees in New York City gathered for the Company’s annual National Advisory Council (NAC)—a group of education experts from across the country with on-the-ground experience who share their insights into critical issues, needs, and challenges facing educators today. This year’s National Advisory Council meeting featured an in-depth panel discussion moderated by Ernie Fleishman, Professional Learning Advisor at Scholastic, exploring equity in education, including social-emotional learning; family engagement, access to reading materials, and more.

The 2018/19 NAC members include:

  • Daniel Gohl: Chief Academic Officer, Broward County Public Schools
  • Vito Borrello: Executive Director, National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE)
  • Brandon Dixon: Senior, Harvard University
  • Fay Brown: Associate Research Scientist, Yale Child Study Center & Director, Child and Adolescent Development School Development Program, Yale Child Study Center
  • Sydney Chaffee: 2017 National Teacher of the Year
  • Jordan Weymer: Principal, Donald McKay K-8 School
  • Pedro Rivera: Pennsylvania Secretary of Education

In case you missed it, we shared insightful responses from the NAC members in Part I of our 2018 National Advisory Council recap. During the conversation they shared how their individual roles connect to the topic of equity and their thoughts on the most important skills for students graduating in 2030.

Don’t miss Part II of the NAC panelists’ responses, below:


Q: How do we overcome the separation of “hard” and “soft” skills?

Daniel Gohl: If we don’t respect the voice of the learner, then we are not able to ensure that they are engaged. I’ve removed all remedial courses from our district and put courses in debate and STEM in their place. Remediation is a toxic idea because it implies that kids lack something. We need to start with what their assets are.

Fay Brown: We can’t look at these skills or behaviors as discrete. They are all interconnected. Social-emotional learning is a buzzword these days, but we can’t just focus on social-emotional learning and forget all other aspects of the child. We have to focus on learning and development in a holistic manner, because the whole child is the person who sits in front of their teacher every single day.

Vito Borrello: Learning occurs not only during the school day, but also at home. The family has a big role to play in the development of the whole child. We also need to address a lack of hope in some communities, because hope is an important part of learning and the expectations we set for ourselves and our children.

Q: Let’s talk about the connection between book selection and social-emotional learning.

Brandon Dixon: The media that students consume—whether it’s books, television, newspapers, etc.—provides a model for how they see themselves in the future. They are always looking for role models, and the way that you provide clear pathways and hope for students is by encoding key qualities and details into the literature and media they’re consuming. When we model positive examples of what students can become, we start to chip away at this lack of hope. It’s more important now than ever before that we do exactly that.

Jordan Weymer: If you want to crush a child’s hope, don’t let them choose what they want to read and instead tell them they can only read the books in the yellow bucket. Another thing I have to consider as a school leader is the whole teacher. Our teachers need social-emotional support and we need to acknowledge that the burnout rate is particularly high. So how are we also meeting the needs of the whole teacher and how are we providing them with the support they need and building their skills to shift the paradigm?

Daniel Gohl: What I worry about is why we pair our highest achieving teachers with our highest achieving kids, and our most struggling teachers with our most struggling kids. Every child should expect to read by age eight, and the problem is that we don’t currently ensure that here in the United States—we’re one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee literacy by age ten.

Vito Borrello: Education begins at birth and some would say it begins before birth. And yet, education is separated into 0–5 years old and then into K–12, and the two grade ranges rarely meet in the middle. We try to address transition issues but the challenge is preparing students to be ready to read in kindergarten, because once they fall behind by third grade, it’s difficult for them to catch up. Family engagement needs to be integrated into education because if education begins at birth, then parents are a child’s first and primary teacher. So the question is, how do we look at education as a continuum, starting at birth?

Pedro Rivera: We have to identify what success in education means. We have to know what our students need and when they need it. In order to do that, you have to know what the specific needs of your students and communities are. You can’t decouple education success from the needs of communities, families, and kids.

Q: You have a magic wand. What’s the single most important action you would want to see taken to meet the needs of all students?

Pedro Rivera: From the state perspective, we have to have rigorous standards, but we also have to have the resources, time, attention, and relationships available to every student to reach those high standards. It’s all about equal opportunity for each and every student to be successful.

Daniel Gohl: We have to give every kid the belief that they have the right to say what it means to meet expectations. I want to hear what each kid has to say and I expect them to talk with me and each other. We have an opportunity to empower every kid to change and own his or her own future.

Sydney Chaffee: If we can empower and trust teachers as experts in education and kids, we can find some answers. Too often there are top down mandates that haven’t been informed by teachers and if we want to solve some of our big problems in education, then we have to elevate teachers to a position where they can have real influence on policies and decision making.

Vito Borrello: My magic wand would be used to help human beings master the issues of understanding implicit bias and what it means.

Brandon Dixon: I was lucky enough to come in contact with books at a very young age—they were accessible to me, but I remember going to the bookstore and wanting books while also feeling guilty about it because my mom could use that money to put food on the table. I would use my magic wand to find a way insulate students from the socio-economic circumstances that make it impossible to gain access to the resources they need.


To read more about the 2017 National Advisory Council meeting on equity in education, go here.

2018 National Advisory Council: Why Educational Equity is Everybody’s Business (Part I)

On Thursday, September 13, Scholastic employees in New York City gathered together for the Company’s annual National Advisory Council (NAC)—a group of education experts from across the country with on-the-ground experience who share their insights into critical issues, needs, and challenges facing educators today. In the 1930s, the first meeting of the NAC was comprised primarily of school superintendents and today, represents a wide spectrum of educational leadership.

The 2018/19 NAC members include:

  • Daniel Gohl: Chief Academic Officer, Broward County Public Schools
  • Vito Borrello: Executive Director, National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE)
  • Brandon Dixon: Senior, Harvard University
  • Fay Brown: Associate Research Scientist, Yale Child Study Center & Director, Child and Adolescent Development School Development Program, Yale Child Study Center
  • Sydney Chaffee: 2017 National Teacher of the Year
  • Jordan Weymer: Principal, Donald McKay K-8 School
  • Pedro Rivera: Pennsylvania Secretary of Education

This year’s National Advisory Council meeting kicked off with opening remarks from moderator Ernie Fleishman, Professional Learning Advisor at Scholastic, and Dick Robinson, Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO of Scholastic. During the morning panel, NAC members shared their views on topics such as the importance of representation in children's literature; social-emotional learning; family engagement, access to reading materials, and more. Take a look:


Q: How does your role connect to the topic of equity?

Sydney Chaffee: Equity is deeply embedded in what I do, and it underscores every decision that I make. I’m always thinking about how I’m going to help every single one of my students have access to a high quality, rigorous, relevant, and authentic education. I am constantly calibrating the things that are in the way of all of my kids succeeding, and I think about the barriers I may have unknowingly put in place for my students. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and speak about this work, and I’ve been able to advocate for equity, pushing the conversation past these nebulous ideas of what equity is and into concrete discussions about how equity affects kids, teachers, and schools on a daily basis. For me, equity always comes back to the kids in my classroom and what they need to succeed.

Pedro Rivera: Equity is not a box that you can check off and move on from. In the Pennsylvania Department of Education, we discuss making sure that we are equitable in terms of distribution, alignment, identification, support, and differentiated measures to ensure that everything we do addresses the needs of our diverse student population. We make sure to engage the community to better understand what they need to be successful, and then we work to set a vision and provide opportunities. We’re shifting our role from compliance to active support for all of our school districts.

Daniel Gohl: So many communities are feeling judged, and this is the challenge. We need to ensure that communities get to articulate what they want, and have it reinforced by what the authority says. Every kid upon birth should expect to be able to read, and as an American society, we’re not delivering that. If our communities entrust their children to us, then they should be able to read. This is our charge as educators.

Fay Brown: As educators, if we are going to achieve equity in the classroom, we have to get to know our children outside of their school work. We have to know how these kids are as human beings. My research focuses on the Developmental Pathways Framework in which we look at kids through six pathways covering cognitive, physical, language, social, ethical, and psychological development. All of this comes together to form the whole child and needs to be looked at when determining what kids need to succeed.

Jordan Weymer: There is no equity without empowerment. Until our students and families feel that they are empowered, that their voice matters, that they have choice, then it’s impossible for there to be equity. That’s the work ahead of us, and ahead of me as a school leader.

Brandon Dixon: As a student of history, I study how these inequities formed in the first place which is so important for developing processes to dismantle them. In addition to being a student, I am a journalist. I help to amplify the stories that come from our classrooms, and help teachers understand the students they will be teaching in 2030. If we don’t think about the future while maintaining an understanding of the past, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes.

Vito Borrello: How can educators know their students if they don’t know their students’ families? It’s common sense, but it’s not common practice. This is exacerbated in low income communities when there are barriers such as poverty and language. My work at NAFSCE focuses on looking at these systemic obstacles and helping educators and families come together to engage as partners in education.


Q: What are the two or three most important skills that you think a student graduating in 2030 needs to demonstrate?

Fay Brown: We tend to focus so much on the cognitive skills our kids have, but kids also need what are often referred to as soft skills. But they are not “soft” skills—they are necessary skills tied to personal intelligence. If you don’t know how to get along with other people, you will not make it in this society regardless of how intellectually gifted you might be.

Pedro Rivera: First and foremost, we want our students to be continuous learners. The coursework taught in schools is only a foundation and it must be built upon to ensure the success of our students as they progress through life. We also need to teach our students how to be engaged and contributing learners in a broader community.

Sydney Chaffee: Educators are thinking about the importance of social-emotional learning. At my school, we have all of our standards, but we also have five habits of scholarship that we reinforce for all students from pre-k to grade 12. These habits include responsibility, effort, collaboration, critique, and compassion. We try to connect every lesson we teach to at least one of these habits, and we ask our kids to evaluate themselves against them. These habits are what I want my students to be really good at.

Jordan Weymer: Our student government came to me recently with amazing ideas for an Immigrant Pride Week, complete with t-shirts, fundraisers, and a march through the streets of Boston. I told them to go for it, and what they put together was beyond remarkable. There were 11-year-olds calling the Boston Police Department asking for police escorts and to make sure that the streets were closed. They were calling the parks department to see whether or not they needed a permit to have a rally in the park. They were doing logistical work, they were utilizing math to allocate funds, they wrote speeches, and they reached out to advocates to attend, all on their own. Think about the skills embedded in that. Those skills are timeless.

Brandon Dixon: Educators need to be deliberate about how they talk to kids, especially when it comes to the skills we want them to learn. Kids need to be treated like regular human beings. I think that’s the key to getting kids engaged and excited about learning those skills. It’s one thing for us to know what needs to be done, but if our students don’t buy into it, then we’re failing.


Stay tuned for Part II to see more insights from the 2018 NAC members.

To read more about the 2017 National Advisory Council meeting on equity in education, go here.

Putting Attendance on the Map

Over the past decade, attendance has moved from the back of the class to the front row, becoming more of a priority nationwide. Driving that change has been organizations such as Attendance Works, a national nonprofit focused on reducing absenteeism. Their research and advocacy has been instrumental in putting attendance on the map.

Produced by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution in coordination with Attendance Works, the Chronic Absence map harnesses a vast quantity of absenteeism data to create a visual outline presenting the information in an easily accessible and actionable way. The Chronic Absence map is designed to bring visibility to the problem of chronic absenteeism on a state and district level.

Do you know your district’s chronic absence level? Your state’s? How one elementary school in your district compares to another? How those figures break down by demographic subgroups? With the Chronic Absence map, you can see those figures instantly. You can also compare districts or schools side-by-side. Perhaps most critically, you can drill down and look at the detail for different subgroups to reveal patterns masked by the broader picture.

According to Hedy N. Chang, director of Attendance Works, “it’s looking at the data more closely that will allow the parents, principals, and policymakers to notice where there are patterns of inequity which need to be disrupted.”

Chronic Absence Is an Equity Marker

The map accompanies a new report released by Attendance Works, Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success. The report crunches national and state data to reveal the number of schools facing high levels of chronic absence. In the 2015–16 school year, nearly 8 million students in the nation were chronically absent, an increase of more than 800,000 students from 2013–14. 

With data collected by the Office for Civil Rights, the analysis highlights underlying equity issues by exploring the connection between chronic absence levels and demographics. The report also provides multiple resources for determining and addressing the root causes of chronic absence.

With increasing accountability built into federal legislation, these resources arrive not a minute too soon. As you likely know, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires all states to include chronic absence data in their annual school report cards. In addition, ESSA requires all states to incorporate an additional accountability metric in their implementation plans. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia haven chosen chronic absence as their extra indicator—adding even greater accountability.

This elevation of chronic absence to the national stage is the culmination of over a decade of research and work reinforcing the impact chronic absence has on learning, not just for the individual, but rippling through the entire school population. Those large-scale effects hit areas of poverty particularly hard. That’s one reason why Hedy N. Chang has been leading the charge in recognizing attendance as a lever for increasing equity. She notes:

“One of the biggest shifts we need to make as a country is to move away from simply blaming children and families for poor attendance and instead change our mindset, to viewing absenteeism as a symptom. On the individual level, chronic absence is a symptom that a child may be facing adversity, stress, lack of engagement, or other barriers that we can identify and address. On a broader level, chronic absence is a symptom of inequity, that not all children are receiving the promise our society makes of equal access to education and opportunity. But we’ve learned an enormous amount. We now know that improving attendance is one of the greatest tools for closing that opportunity gap, and we know how to do it. It’s a needle we can—and must—move.”

Examining chronic absence data helps tell us which students are most affected by missing school in time for us to take action—to remove barriers and give every student an equal opportunity to learn.

Why How We Count Counts

How we track attendance, and what we do with that information, has come a long way. Attendance is no longer focused on “truancy.” It’s not just about “average daily attendance.”  Nor is it a compliance box to be checked off.

  • Chronic Absence Defined: Attendance Works recommends that chronic absence be defined as missing 10 percent of school—the equivalent of two days every month or 18 days over a 180-day school year.
  • Early Warning System: By that measure, missing just two days in the first month of school triggers an alert that a child may be in danger of becoming chronically absent. This understanding better enables early detection and action to improve attendance.
  • Not the Same as Truancy: Chronic absence is different than truancy, which typically refers only to unexcused absences. But any absence is time away from learning–excused or unexcused–and is counted in chronic absenteeism data.  
  • Not the Same as ADA: Chronic absence level (how many students don’t attend school regularly) differs from average daily attendance (how many students typically do attend school each day).
  • Unmasking Barriers: Both truancy and average daily attendance can easily mask substantial levels of chronic absence. Chronic absence data can serve as a flag, pointing to outside challenges. When absences are marked as excused, young children facing adverse circumstances at home may slip through the cracks.  
  • Poverty Impact: Although chronic absenteeism is pervasive in all types of districts and subgroups, analysis points to poverty as a critical factor linked to high levels of chronic absence.

Once you’ve had a chance to identify the chronic absenteeism data relevant to your district, Scholastic Education can help to address it. Click here to connect with us.

Creating School Environments that Support Social and Emotional Learning: 5 Tips for District Leaders

Once again, another school year is in full swing. The beginning of the year is an important time for us to make sure that we’ve created supportive school environments where our students can develop the social and emotional skills they’ll need to flourish in school, with their peers, and in life.

As we all know, social and emotional learning (SEL) has become a “hot topic” in education. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning is defined as the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. If you’ve heard me speak at a convention or district event, you have most certainly heard me say, “There’s greatness on the inside.” For me, social-emotional learning comes down to creating learning environments where our students are aware of their greatness and understand how to use it to reach their full potential.

Before we think about what SEL looks like in our classrooms and worry about what programs are most effective, let’s make sure we’ve created a safe and supportive environment for learning in our schools—an environment where SEL learning can be successful. SEL programs and products will only work if we have created the foundation for them to do so.

CASEL’s foundational research lays out five key competencies of social and emotional learning, which I have used as a basis for the Byron V. Garret Social-Emotional Learning Collection. I want us to revisit these, and for each competency, I would like to provide you with an action to take to ensure that you are creating the right environment in your school or district to support this goal. Some of these may seem like common sense but it never hurts for us to take a step back and revisit the simple things that can make a difference.

COMPETENCY #1: Understanding Myself

Empowering our students to be able to identify and discuss their emotions as well as possess self-awareness and self-confidence

LEADER TIP: Believe in yourself, believe in your students

You are a role model, everything you do and say will be observed and mimicked. By devoting your life to education you are truly making an impact in this world. You are the agent for your own success and you set the example for what success looks like for your students. Make sure you are strong, determined, and present, meaning that you are a visible part of your school’s culture. This means being present at school functions and activities, popping into classrooms, and talking to students at lunch or during recess. Get to know your students on a personal level, ask them about their interests and their activities, and encourage them to follow their dreams. Show them you are there to support them in their endeavors. When you believe in a child and show that you are there to support them, they are much more likely to believe in themselves.

COMPETENCY #2: Managing Myself

Helping our students develop the ability to connect their thoughts to actions, to control impulses, and to manage their behavior

LEADER TIP: Make sure your schools and teachers are inviting students to the table

How can we expect our students to learn to manage themselves if we don’t empower them to learn what management is by inviting them to leadership roles in the classroom and the school? This is crucial if we want them to learn to self-manage and manage others.

COMPETENCY #3: Respecting Others

Helping our students to understand how to be empathetic and learn how to understand perspectives of people from diverse places and cultures

LEADER TIP: Celebrate diversity!

Classrooms today are more diverse than ever. We have a responsibility to celebrate diverse backgrounds and to make every student feel accepted by their school community. This acceptance is key to helping our students learn how to accept others. To do this, it is essential that we involve families and the community through efforts such as inviting them to the school campus. This could take various forms such as hosting culture nights, literacy events, school fairs, or even sending an open invitation to join students for lunch.

COMPETENCY #4: Building Relationships

Helping our students to communicate and work together. This allows them to be able to develop and sustain healthy relationships

LEADER TIP: Sustain strong relationships with your school and community

I’ve mentioned the importance of getting to know your students on a personal level. By doing so you are modeling effective communication, which is essential to cooperation. I’ve also mentioned the importance of involving family and community and maintaining strong relationships with your educators and staff. The strong relationships you cultivate will guide your students to build strong relationships of their own.

COMPETENCY #5: Making decisions

Empowering our students to be able to recognize conflict, evaluate situations, and find solutions

LEADER TIP: Lead with confidence

Not all conflicts have easy resolutions. Sometimes compromises must be made. As we all know life can be messy. Things come up that we don’t always want or expect. When this happens we must keep moving forward and this often requires us to regroup and reevaluate. By doing this with confidence and transparency we are demonstrating to our students that this is a normal part of life and we must learn to expect conflict and not look at it as a roadblock but as an opportunity to find a better solution.

As we continue into the school year remember that you are your school’s greatest role model and you must practice what you preach. Set the example for success and your students will follow.


You can follow Byron V. Garrett on Twitter at @Byronvgarrett. Learn more about The Byron V. Garret Social-Emotional Learning Collection

RISE: A Short Term Intervention that Helps Striving Readers Excel

The beginning of a new school year is always an exciting time for students and teachers. Classrooms are organized, and feelings of hope and opportunity hang in the air next to the freshly decorated bulletin boards.

With great reflection and care, teachers begin to build their guided reading workshop schedule.  A few years ago, Sally was one of the thousands of talented and dedicated teachers spending hours preparing and reflecting on how to best initiate this year’s reading workshop, and now she was ready.

Sally looked around her first grade classroom and smiled. Her room was impeccably organized. Her kidney-shaped table and guided reading materials waited at one end.  A well-thumbed and tabbed copy of Jan Richardson’s, The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading sat near her guided reading notebook next to the tubs of leveled readers, small white boards, markers, her timer, reading notebooks, sticky notes, running record sheets, and comprehension cards. At the poetry center, 10 large, laminated poems hung from the chart stand, with two colorful pointers ready for eager readers’ hands. The six laptops at the listening center were loaded with electronic books.  Pens, pencils, and paper sat patiently waiting for stories to be written and illustrated at the writing center. Sally always made sure the writing task was linked to the reading or writing workshop topics, creating echoes throughout the lessons. And the buddy reading center was purposefully located near the classroom library which was well-organized by genre and level. Every student’s book box had at least six up-to-date just-right books. 

Sally carefully planned her 75-minute guided reading workshop block to the minute: 12 minutes for her class focus lesson, a few minutes of transition time, and 60 minutes to complete three guided reading groups. She labored over the schedule, planning how she could meet with striving readers five days a week, those at or near benchmark three to four days a week, and highly proficient readers twice a week.  As students progressed, she would reassess her groups, shifting students from one to another, trying to best meet the needs of her 25 first graders. 

On the first day of the reading workshop, Sally completed her read aloud during the 15-minute focus lesson, she rang a chime signaling her 25 students to move to their stations.  Within two minutes she was positioned with her first guided reading group at her table.  The other 20 students checked the color-coded schedule posted on the board and moved to their assigned centers.

No matter how much Sally prepared for this moment, her reading block would not go as planned. Several of her students would not engage in the independent centers in the way that many of her other students would.

As the reading workshop was underway, Sally was focused on her reading group—most of the time.  She tried not to, but she was drawn to glance up and look across the room.  Max was at the poetry center.  Unlike Beth and Terrill who were happily reciting several poems, Max was busy standing between the hanging poems and peeling the lamination off one titled, “Busy Bees.” 

Sally then saw Joey, Angelina, and Tanwa perched on colorful pillows with their book boxes on their laps.  From a distance, one might not notice that Tanwa’s buddy reading book was upside down. At the independent writing center, a few students had been busy decorating the edges of their paper instead of writing a story.

Sally is not alone. This scenario plays itself out every day in classrooms across the country.  How can educators reach some of the students in classrooms nationwide who struggle to use their independent center time the way it is intended?  These students are often our striving readers who are not accelerating. They may have some literacy skills in place but cannot work independently or focus without constant direction.  As a teacher, Sally worries about this a lot. 

What Jan Richardson and I have found through our work on the RISE framework (Reading Intervention for Students to Excel) is that most of these striving students thrive on an intense and focused burst of literacy training for a short period of time. The RISE framework offers a 6–8 week solution for helping these striving readers. As featured in The Next Step Forward in Reading Intervention, this framework is based on Jan’s guided reading lesson and adapted for the intervention setting. Schools can be effective by using their existing staff and space to help striving readers in a targeted intervention that creates and nurtures independent problem solving—a critical skill needed for reading and in life.

It’s important that we don’t let students become lifetime members of the reading intervention club, but get the focused attention that they need and quickly rejoin the rest of their classmates as they continue their learning journeys. They will be newly confident in their literacy skills and ready to thrive in a supportive and organized classroom, just as Sally’s striving readers did after they received the intervention they needed.

Striving readers want to become better readers. Targeted and focused literacy instruction is what many striving readers need to help them succeed as joyful, independent readers, for the rest of the school year, and beyond.

Shared Literacy Community Values: Step into ESL LitCamp

Kenneth Kunz, Ed.D. is currently K–12 Supervisor of Curriculum & Instruction at Middlesex Public Schools. This post is also co-authored by Kathyrn Diskin and Elizabeth Tamargo. 

Embracing All Literacy Learners

Middlesex School District, located in a small New Jersey metropolitan suburb, is home to a diverse student population of approximately 2,000 students. This past summer our Middlesex administrative team’s goal was centered on encouraging the English learner population to read for fun, while promoting access and equity by putting more books in the hands of our students. As Richard Allington notes in his research, summer and extensive breaks from formal school instruction contribute to significant losses in gains related to students’ reading.

Community Involvement

Our quest for resources began with a desire to uplift an already successful #READ4Fun program to broader heights with a new literacy vision.  A special feature of the Middlesex School District is a community-wide desire to get involved to make an impact. 

During the summer of 2017, students who were enrolled in Spanish foreign language classes at Middlesex High School volunteered their time to participate in “Hablo Ingles,” a program aimed at building the confidence of young English learners at the elementary level through community-building and speaking and listening activities.  New this year, we focused on students’ literacy development by implementing LitCamp. The 4-week summer literacy program took on a life of its own with the involvement of motivated high school volunteers who helped build English learners’ confidence and excitement for reading.

When LitCamp first began for ESL students, materials were organized by grade level and high school volunteers participated in an after-school training to become acquainted with how to organize each 90-minute day. While materials and resources helped get the program started, it was the love for teaching and learning that made all the difference. Volunteers went above and beyond to design warm and inviting learning environments, create team building activities, and celebrate students’ learning, earning countless hugs from kids.

Teacher Leadership

Another key component of the program involved promoting teacher leadership by creating the position of ESL LitCamp Coordinator funded through federal title grants.  In this role, Mrs. Tamargo helped to organize and supervise the volunteers, check in daily to ensure that things were running smoothly, and collect and analyze data.

Outcomes and Next Steps

After reflecting on artifacts, survey results, and anecdotal records, our team found that the average student enjoyed anywhere from 14–20 books over the course of four weeks and students’ attitudes towards reading showed positive growth. On the first day of LitCamp, as she welcomed students into the classroom, Mrs. Tamargo noted in her daily journal, “Both the counselors and kids seem nervous today.  Everyone is becoming familiar with the routines and structure and where to go.  Student A is dropped off early and picked up late.  He speaks very little English and appears shy.”

On the last day of camp, her entry read: “The counselors really went all-out for the students, bringing in macaroni and cheese and preparing summer gift bags.  The halls are filled with the sounds of kids playing games and singing songs.  Student A was able to spend the entire day with his group.  When it came time to dismiss, we had lots of kids crying when their parents translated in English that this was the last day of camp.  Student A gave the best hug before he left.  There were lots of smiles when students realized they could take all of the books home with them.

To further spread excitement about literacy across the community, Pam Allyn, author and Founder of the nonprofit LitWorld, visited as a keynote speaker during the district’s back-to-school kickoff day.  Everyone in the school community was present (including teachers, administrators, lunch aides, administrative assistants, custodians, maintenance workers, and many more). We couldn’t agree more with her beliefs that all students have great potential to become Super Readers, and we all play a crucial role in this mission! 

Of course, we also believe that this excitement for literacy should last throughout the year.  During the summer, students wrote post-cards to their principals, proudly announcing how many books they read and what they enjoyed most of all.  Principals made their rounds throughout the schools during the first week of school to locate and celebrate each student individually—the students were beaming with joy!  Continued encouragement from teachers and schools leaders combined with individualized conferring in our language arts classrooms will keep the momentum going.



Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Reading Achievement Gap, Allington (2013).

As Students Head Back to School, Districts Nationwide Shine a Spotlight on Literacy and More

Below are a few education stories we've bookmarked recently.

While many look to January as a time to analyze goals and start fresh, the beginning of a new school year is also a moment to evaluate and emphasize what will be important in the coming months. As students head back to school this year, districts nationwide are shining a spotlight on literacy and building the family, community, and learning supports that students need to succeed in their continued learning journeys. We’ve bookmarked a few local examples of districts that are highlighting literacy, learning supports, and social-emotional intelligence as a focus.

Middlesex teachers focus on increasing student literacy ahead of school year

Middlesex School District in New Jersey hosted a back-to-school kickoff event for all district staff where literacy expert Pam Allyn provided a keynote presentation about the power of reading with tips for helping all kids become “Super Readers.”

Northside ISD creates free clothing closet for students in need

Before students head back to school at Northside ISD in Texas, they will have a chance to shop for new clothes thanks to Northside Threads, a free collection of clothing for students who need new outfits, but aren't able to afford them. Students will arrive for the first day of school feeling more confident and able to focus on classroom work, knowing they have an outfit for every day of the school week.

Grand Rapids schools dedicating 2 hours daily to literacy

Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan began a literacy initiative encouraging kindergarten through second grade classrooms to dedicate two-hour blocks of time each day to literacy instruction to improve proficiency in English language arts.

State's Superintendents Schooled On Emotional Intelligence At Annual Back-To-School Meeting

During their annual back-to-school meeting, Connecticut superintendents received a crucial lesson in emotional intelligence from Marc Brackett, director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence. Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association for Public School Superintendents, explained, “It begins with the adults ... to honor their feelings, who they are as a whole individual. That was the key, then moving to the child. It cut down bullying, it cut down suspensions, increased attendance.”

Twitter Chat Recap: #G2Great with Tim Rasinski & Melissa Cheesman Smith

Last night, fluency expert Tim Rasinski and veteran fifth grade teacher Melissa Cheesman Smith joined the Literacy Lenses #G2Great Twitter chat to talk about their new book and strategies to engage all young readers. The two shared their thoughts on using authentic texts, tactics to promote authentic fluency experiences, the benefits of Multidimensional Fluency Scales, and more.

To learn more about how to weave fluency work into daily reading instruction, check out the professional title The Megabook of Fluency! You can view the full #G2Great Twitter chat hosted by Dr. Mary Howard, here.

Below are highlights from the Twitter chat:

Literacy is Not a Trend: Creating a Culture of Literacy

Dr. Sue Szachowicz—former school principal and Senior Fellow for the Successful Practices Network—will be speaking at the Principals of Literacy Institute (Nashville, TN / September 20-22, 2018) brought to you by Scholastic and National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Register here.

The power of teaching students literacy skills is well documented in educational research.  But what does that look like in districts, schools, and classrooms, and more importantly, how do you create a culture of literacy that is pervasive and long lasting?

In my many years at Brockton High School, we transformed from a school ranked as one of the lowest performing in Massachusetts to a National Model School, recognized for academic excellence.  We accomplished this by focusing relentlessly on literacy.  Led by our leadership team, we implemented a Literacy Initiative across the curriculum that focused on teaching the students the skills they need in reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning, in every classroom.  But that first required us to teach those literacy strategies to our faculty—in EVERY discipline. 

There was no magic formula, no silver bullet, no special program.  Rather, our “secret sauce” was simple, but not easy.  Our four steps to creating this powerful culture of literacy have become a template for many leadership teams to follow.  Let’s look at each of those steps toward creating a culture of literacy.

1.  Empower a team

Our leadership team, which included faculty and administration, examined the data and we asked ourselves what skills our students need to be successful on our state assessment, in their classes, and in their lives beyond school.  From that discussion, we determined that our students needed to read challenging selections (particularly nonfiction), write clearly, speak professionally, and think critically.  That led us to literacy.

2.  Focus on literacy

Our leadership team defined literacy in four domains:  reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning (see an outline of the Literacy Initiative, below).  Within each domain, we detailed very specific literacy objectives that teachers would teach to their students—every teacher, in every discipline.  But first, we had to teach these skills to ourselves.  Many educators may feel as I did when I was teaching history.  I was not opposed to teaching reading or writing, but frankly, I didn’t have the strategies.  When I would present my students with difficult primary source readings, they often said, “Miss, I don’t get it.”  Then I’d utilize the only reading strategies I had in my toolbox telling them, “Read it again.”  And if they still weren’t getting it, I’d go to a deeper level, “Read it more slowly.”  Hardly effective literacy strategies.   Our challenge was adult learning.  We needed to ensure that all of our teachers had literacy strategies in their toolboxes.

3.  Implement with fidelity

Once the literacy objectives in reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning were established, teachers received training in how to teach and integrate those skills in their classes.  Faculty meetings became literacy workshops, created and led by our leadership team.  This was teachers teaching teachers.  We modeled for the faculty the writing process that they would teach to the students—highly effective professional development.  All teachers were taught how to teach active reading strategies and a writing process that would be implemented across the curriculum.  A calendar was established to ensure that students were given repeated practice in these critical literacy skills. 

4.  Monitor like crazy

This became our greatest challenge—how to ensure that this practice was happening with fidelity and rigor across the school.  We monitored the faculty implementation by direct observation of the literacy instruction, and by utilizing a common rubric.  We followed up by having teachers review, compare and discuss student work.  By grouping teachers in common grades and subjects to review students’ writing, we began to increase the consistency of rigor for all of our students.  

Within a year we saw results, and that’s what got the buy-in from our faculty—results!  As we started to receive awards and attention for our continued improvement year after year, we have shared our process with schools and districts across the country with great results.  In fact, just recently I received this email from Blythe Carpenter, principal of Merriam Cherry Street Elementary in Panama City Florida: “I am writing to share the good news that our school pulled it off, we found out yesterday that we made the 'A'!!! We went from one of the lowest performing 300 schools in the state of Florida with an 'F' grade, to a high performing 'A' school in just TWO years!!!  We did it with a focus on literacy, particularly in reading…”

Creating a culture of literacy works!  Literacy is not a trend, it will not get outdated, it can be replicated, and it does not cost a fortune.  Most importantly, creating a culture of literacy provides our students with the skills they need to be successful not only in school, but in their lives beyond school.  Simple, not easy.


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