Family and Community Engagement Is a Partnership

Family engagement in education—often referred to imprecisely as “parental involvement”—extends beyond incidental communication with schools or helping with homework. Effective family engagement is best achieved through a balanced and reciprocal partnership among schools, families and the community. 

The Role of the District

Beginning at the district level with the implementation of strategic plans and yearly goals, best practices prescribe the deliberate and meaningful inclusion of families and community partners. This means that families and the community collaborate with schools on shared plans and initiatives that support student achievement. All roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and supported, with a commitment to providing resources for ongoing professional learning for school staff, and ongoing, actionable communications for families, so that the connection between school and home is continuous and beneficial for all.  When this level of engagement occurs, families and communities share ownership of student achievement, which is sustainable even if district or school leadership changes. It also means that a foundation of successful engagement can be expanded in the future. 

The Role of the School

It is crucial for teachers and staff to develop deep knowledge of their communities. Schools are increasingly diverse, with students who might be multi-lingual or multi-ethnic, who practice many different religions, or who come to school with special needs.  And in many cases, what we once thought of as traditional family structure has changed, and students may live in foster, blended, or other kinds of families. We also often hear from teachers that the families who consistently come to school—especially once their children enter sixth grade—are the families of students who are doing well. When some families do not participate in school activities or communicate with the school, it may seem like they don’t care. In fact, the case may be that cultural, language or logistical issues (such as inflexible work schedules) prevent families from communicating with schools. So the school’s biggest challenge is learning how to create partnerships with all families. Schools must be able to understand their students’ families, and be equipped to engage with them in a flexible and responsive manner. 

For leaders, teachers and school staff, strong professional development can provide concrete strategies on how to identify factors that impact whether and to what degree families are able to communicate with schools. Schools are then able to differentiate engagement in order to effectively work with all families on an ongoing basis.

The Role of the Family

For families, meaningful engagement starts with learning how to work in partnership with schools.  This begins with a family’s strong connection with their child’s teacher, which allows cooperation and the means to provide deliberate support. In addition, through both these important conversations and opportunities to learn from other educators and families at the school, families can learn how to ask different kinds of questions at home in order to establish a deeper connection with their child’s academic progress. For example, instead of asking, “How was school today?”, they will learn to ask questions with purpose: “What did you learn today?” “Which character do you like in the story, and why?” When schools have great home connections, they are able to encourage students to read more at home, which increases vocabulary, and, ultimately, overall academic achievement.

Effective family and community engagement is therefore more than a series of meetings scheduled throughout the school year. It must begin with systemic implementation, and then evolve as a proactive, responsive and deliberate relationship of equal partners.


Reading Workshop: Thinking, Talking, & Learning

I’m fortunate to be in a book club with a group of longtime friends, many of whom are retired teachers. On my drive home the other night, I was brimming with energy after spending the evening thinking and talking about our most recent selection, A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman, 2015). I thought about how my book club is a meeting of people who love to read, and who want to share that love with friends, thereby supporting each other cultivating our lives as readers. I pondered the parallels between the flow of our book club meetings and the routines of reading workshop with my students. I have found that the way we support each other as readers during my book club is very similar to the most effective support that teachers can provide readers in the classroom, in which we invite students to share in conversations that will boost their energy, engagement, and learning. 

Begin with a Shared Book Experience—Read Aloud

In our book club, we all have something to say because we’ve read the same book. If you eavesdropped on our conversations, you would hear responses like, “Hmm!” or “Really?” as members share their insights. In our classrooms, there’s nothing like a well-chosen read aloud to spark a shared response. At a recent conference, MaryEllen Vogt, co-author of the SIOP book series, was in the middle of reading and talking about a text when the audience exclaimed, “AAAAAAH!” MaryEllen wisely replied, “I hear the sounds of comprehension!” What a smart way to label thinking for students! Kids can’t help but gasp when you turn the page in Alan’s Big, Scary Teeth (Jarvis, 2016) and—spoiler alert!—readers discover his teeth are fake. That gasp is important! Now I take a moment to note the sounds students make while listening to a read aloud, which tell me that they understand the text. The next time you do a read aloud, listen for the sounds of comprehension!

Foster Thoughtful Listening 

Why do we listen to each other during book club? We listen because we care about and respect each other. We want to hear what our fellow members think because it deepens our own comprehension. How do we help children better understand the reasons to listen thoughtfully during classroom conversations? I think that sometimes we are so focused on teaching children how to listen that we forget to explain why it is important. A few years ago, our school social worker introduced us to the concept of whole body listening (Truesdale, 1990). Whole body listening is an approach to teaching listening that makes the abstract concept of listening more concrete for children. It does this by explaining all the different body parts listeners use along with how active (or inactive) listening makes the speaker feel. For example, whole body listeners use their brains as they think about the speaker is saying and use their hearts because they care about the speaker. Teaching students to listen with their brains and hearts has helped them to better understand what it means to be an active participant in our collaborative conversations. When we can cultivate conversations that mirror a book club discussion, everyone’s thinking is elevated.

Teach and Demonstrate Useful Strategies 

During book club discussions, it is always interesting to notice the different strategies my book club members use to increase their comprehension. Some members put sticky notes in their books, others create character webs. I happen to do a lot of writing in the margins of my book.

As we think about the strategies that we teach, we want to target the ones that will support learners long after they leave our classrooms, when they are in book clubs of their own. Early in the school year, my students and I read wordless books together. I demonstrate to my class how I infer and predict as I try to figure out what is happening in the story.

To cement this demonstration and support students as I release responsibility, I use an anchor chart. You’ll notice this chart allows me to differentiate based on the needs of my students, because I know that not every strategy will work for every child. We build on this foundation throughout the year, continually adding to students’ repertoire of strategies to use during independent reading.

Support Independent Reading 

As longtime friends and colleagues, all book club members know each other’s reading preferences and are on the lookout for titles to recommend to each other. Thus, we end each meeting by sharing book suggestions and creating a shared “Someday” list in our book club journal. As educators, most of us only have one year to get to know our students’ interests and book preferences, so it is wise to begin the year with a reading interest survey like the one found in Scholastic’s Next Step Guided Reading Assessment Once we know students’ interests, we can match them to books and help them create their own “Someday” lists. Of course, in order have enough books to do this for a year, a robust school and classroom library is a must. In book club we support each other in finding, reading, and understanding books. The same holds true for independent reading in our classrooms.


Celebration is essential both in our personal lives and in our classrooms. We begin each book club by chatting and catching up on each other’s lives, and we’ve celebrated many milestones like newborn grandchildren and retirements. In my classroom, I celebrate students’ approximations and strategy use. As I’m sitting beside a reader, I might say, “I noticed you used the picture clue to help you figure out that word! That’s what readers do!” Regie Routman defines celebration as, “affirming, congratulating, showcasing, noticing, and making public the positive and specific actions and work learners have done or are attempting to do” (Teaching Essentials, 2008, p. 29). Whether you’re reading this post near the end of the school year or during summer, I’m guessing you’ve had the the “I’m going to be better at ______ next year reflections.” Instead of looking ahead, let’s reflect and share some celebrations! How have you helped your readers think and talk about books this year? 

Storyworks Jr.: Differentiating Instruction with the Video Read-Aloud

We know that 3rd grade is a critical year for both kids and teachers. It’s often the first year of high-stakes testing, for one thing. It’s also when students cross a crucial bridge in literacy, from learning to read to reading to learn. For a long time, 3rd-grade teachers had been asking us for a magazine just for their students—which is why we created Storyworks Jr. (You can read more about how and why we created this extension of the successful Storyworks brand here.) As the magazine’s editor, I’m excited to tell you about one of its strongest forms of teacher support, which happens to be a powerful differentiation tool. (More on that in a minute.)

Storyworks Jr. offers readers a wide range of genres—fiction, paired texts, read-aloud plays, poetry, debates, writing activities—and lots of nonfiction. And within all that super engaging text, we give teachers plenty of opportunities for differentiation. For example, our main narrative nonfiction article appears in a lower-Lexile version, a higher-level version, and what we’re calling a “starter” version, which is a very basic presentation of the facts for struggling readers. We’ve got audio versions of several stories, too. 

But we’re especially proud of our new approach to video, which we’re calling the Video Read-Aloud. We see it as a real game-changer for instruction (and that’s exactly how teachers who’ve used it are describing it!).

Our Video Read-Aloud is basically a hybrid of everything that’s most effective about audio, and everything that’s most engaging about video. It lets teachers build interest and provide background information. At the same time it supports students by modeling a fluent reading of a text that’s visually inviting. 

For instance, our first Video Read-Aloud was about the eruption of Mount St. Helens. In this new format, the author (in this case, our Editorial Director, Lauren Tarshis) reads her narrative nonfiction article, while photos and footage pull students further into the story. Teachers tell us that for those students who don’t know the first thing about camping (which is what the boys in our story were doing when they were caught in the eruption), the video immediately allows them to envision the experience. And it dovetails perfectly with Common Core’s Speaking and Listening standards.

The video serves as an ideal way to differentiate. For instance, struggling readers can watch it as a “first read,” and then read the article in small groups or with teacher support. They can also watch the video while reading along at home or in the classroom, to reinforce the story and build fluency. Meanwhile, on-level readers can watch the first two or so minutes of the video, then turn it off. (This way their interest is piqued but they don’t know how the story will unfold.) They can then read the article in full, and watch the rest of the video.   

Curious about our debut Video Read-Aloud? You can watch it—and check out our prototype issue—by clicking here

Making Time for Science and Social Studies

Let’s face it—finding enough time to teach science and social studies can be a challenge. For example, as a first grade teacher, my schedule allows me only a single 30-minute block in which to tackle both science and social studies, and that just isn’t enough instruction time for these crucial subjects. Thirty minutes just isn’t enough time to teach anything!

In order to make the most of my time with my students, I decided to think creatively about how I can incorporate science and social studies into our daily schedule. Below are the strategies I found most useful, which can help elementary school teachers find time for science and social studies in their packed schedules—not only in a short 30-minute time frame.

1. Teach Science and Social Studies Units Separately

This is a simple and common-sense strategy that has worked well for me. Each year, instead of teaching science and social studies simultaneously in the classroom, I teach my units separately. This provides to my students the opportunity to dive deeper into each subject, rather than just touch the surface of both. Students achieve mastery when they go deeper, not wider. 

2. Teach Thematic Units

This essentially means incorporating science/social studies content into reader’s and writer’s workshops. At the beginning of each school year when I sit down with my first grade teammates to create our curriculum calendar, we strategically choose which science or social studies unit best corresponds with our reading and writing units.

Below is a sample 1st grade Common Core–aligned curriculum calendar, which I created with colleagues at my former school.

This type of planning works well with nonfiction reading and writing units because I strategically select texts that support my science and social studies units of study. During whole class, small group, and independent work, students have the chance to practice important nonfiction reading skills and strategies while also learning science and social studies concepts, and reinforcing that new knowledge by thinking and talking about the texts.

By the same token, students can apply what they have learned from rich reading content to support their writing. For instance, they may use research about animals to write an all-about book, or use information learned about the seasons to write a persuasive paragraph, or write a poem about properties of matter. The possibilities are endless!

I’m sure you’re now wondering: How can I incorporate science and social studies into my fiction units? I have to admit that integrating science and social studies during a nonfiction reading and writing unit comes more naturally. But although integrating these areas of study into fiction can be more difficult, it is still a rewarding challenge. One social studies unit I particularly enjoy is Citizenship, when we spend quite some time discussing what good citizenship means. I partner this exploration with a Kevin Henkes author study and a realistic fiction writing unit. Henkes’s books convey life lessons that support many of the ideas around citizenship that we discuss as a class, and which my students incorporate into the characters they create.

This leads me to my next suggestion:

3. Teach Science/Social Studies in Lieu of Writer's Workshop 

Don’t panic! You will only need to do this one, maybe two days each week.

Like most teachers, I realized this problem of not having time to do it all during my first year in the classroom. My literacy coach at the time said that writer’s workshop only has to be done three times each week, and you can do science or social studies during that block one or two times a week. This was eye-opening, and I’ve carried this guidance with me since then. My current principal also encourages teachers to do science and social studies “labs” once a week during writing time! Being able to teach science or social studies during writing essentially opens up one or two additional hours each week to teach content! It is also a perfect time to do those activities that definitely take longer than 30 minutes: science experiments, research, engagement in group projects, and so forth.

And even though it isn’t the “official” writers workshop writing process, there's still significant writing involved. Science writing includes recording observations and data, writing steps to a procedure/experiment, and writing conclusions and any new information learned. “Social studies writing” includes taking research notes, writing reports, or writing new information learned in a social studies notebook. Students will absolutely still be writing every day.

4. Choose Science and Social Studies Texts for Guided Reading Groups

This suggestion is a great opportunity to creatively involve science and social studies in your weekly schedule. When planning and implementing guided reading groups, strategically pick science and social studies texts that align to your current unit of study throughout the school year. During this time, students in your guided reading groups can have yet another opportunity to absorb content while practicing reading strategies.

5. Make Science and Social Studies Texts Available and Accessible in Your Classroom Library 

During each unit, select and have “thematic unit” book bins accessible to your students in a way that is best suited for your classroom setup, on display and in a special place where your students know to visit for books to read. When kids “book-shop” and choose their just-right books for independent reading, encourage them to pick one or two books from the “thematic unit” bin. They can read these books during independent reading time and be exposed to science and social studies content.

6. Home Projects

Science and social studies take-home projects promote further discovery for students on topics they may want to learn more about. They can take their time to conduct research, and then prepare their work for an audience. This will also give them an opportunity to perhaps work with technology and collaborate with their families at home. When students present their projects to the class, they get the benefit of both public speaking and learning from their peers. (Participating in the school science fair is another way to achieve these goals.)

7. Collaborate with School Science Teacher 

I took advantage of this when teaching in New York City. On the days when my students had science, I would teach related content during classroom time before science, and then the science teacher would follow up with an experiment, or vice versa. This is especially valuable for building background knowledge necessary to conduct an experiment. It also provides an extended period of time for engaging in exploratory science-focused learning. 

My strategy is to provide my students with science and social studies content whenever and wherever possible, without being constrained by the half-hour block I'm given to cover these two content areas. 

BONUS: Click here to download a PDF poster version!

Making is a Community Event

Take two crazy school librarians, one supportive administration, 80 volunteers and committee members, more than 500 participants, many generous sponsors, and almost 70 hands-on learning activities and what do you have? It’s SLIME! (Otherwise known as the Students of Long Island Maker Expo.)

The maker movement has transformed the way students think and learn. Their learning is self-directed and knowledge acquisition is inquiry-based. These are the cornerstones for developing lifelong learning skills. We both have active makerspaces in our school libraries because we see inquiry learning as a stepping stone to innovation and deep knowledge acquisition.  

Inspired by the maker movement and with the goal to do more beyond our own libraries and our own districts, Kris founded SLIME and Gina jumped on board as co-director.  Though we work in different school districts, we joined forces to provide unique learning experiences for our community at-large.  We’ve even participated in the inaugural National Maker Faire in Washington, DC representing SLIME.

SLIME, an annual event now in its second year, brings together K–12 students, educators, parents, organizations, and community members from all over Long Island to have fun and learn from one another. SLIME celebrates creativity and innovation through hands-on activities that explore everything from recyclables to robotics.

Are you thinking about creating your own maker expo? Here are 5 lessons we have learned, which will help your planning:

Get school leaders on board

When we hosted our first SLIME, Bay Shore Middle School’s principal (Dr. Outlaw) agreed to host the event for us. Although she wasn’t sure exactly what this day would look like, she trusted us and supported our decisions. We got her input about event particulars such as securing the venue and date, and then she allowed us to pursue our vision. Having administrators as allies is necessary when opening up the space to the entire community.

Get help

Organizing a maker event requires a lot of support. You will need a dedicated committee who can oversee all the elements that will make your event a success. Build a network through your school community, and even your family and friends.  Involve your local parent association, as well as educators from other districts. There are more people than you might think who would like to participate. During the event, kids can help out by running errands and even being in charge of project stations.

Get funding…of all kinds

Let’s face it, funding is critical! Many of local civic organizations and businesses like to support educators, and a maker expo allows them do so while also gaining recognition for their business. Present them with specific ways they can help, like sponsoring an activity, but also be prepared to welcome donations in any form. While monetary support can help you to purchase necessities as well as other items on your wish list, donations such as refreshments for volunteers, printing services, and goodies for swag bags are also a great way to get what you need. 

Think about posting a donation request on your school website, and harness the power of social media. Twitter and Facebook can help you connect with scouting troops and crafting groups who can help. You should also ask your friends and family to save recyclable materials. For months leading up to SLIME we save tuna fish cans, toilet paper tubes, plastic tablecloths, baby food jars, and CD cases.  And sometimes you might get happily surprised! Two weeks before our first SLIME event, we received a grant to purchase art supplies and a digital camera with a portable printer. You might even find a use for those 300 picture frame corners that you found on Craigslist!

Make it fun

There is a quote we love from Benjamin Franklin, which is a guiding principle for us: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Remember... It’s all about the kids! An expo can be a showcase for what students created at school, but it’s not school. What participants loved about SLIME was finding the joy of learning. While standards and assessments are necessary to help students reflect on their progress, the first question you should ask yourself when organizing an activity is “Will kids enjoy this?” If they aren’t having fun, then it’s just another day at school. 

Get the word out

How do you get all those people to show up to an event that’s never been done before? The answer lies in advertisements, marketing, and communication. Start with the school librarians to get the word out, but don’t stop there. Contact district administrators, and network at local conferences. Use listservs to spread the word, and use every lead possible! Couple that with social media and you’re on your way to a successful event. 

Roll up your sleeves and start planning your own expo! Visit our website, join our Facebook group, and follow the event on twitter at @SlimeExpo.

Kristina Holzweiss of Bay Shore Middle School (Bay Shore, NY) was named School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year in August 2015. Be sure to check out her other blog post, My Story: From a Job Cut to Becoming School Librarian of the Year.  Together, she and her colleague Gina Seymour of Islip High School (Islip, NY), are spearheading the maker movement in Long Island school libraries. Follow Kristina at @lieberrian.

Gina Seymour (Co-Director of SLIME) is the library media specialist at Islip High School. She is the recipient of SSLMA School Librarian of the Year (2014) award, serves on the ALA's Website Advisory Committee, and is Chairperson for YALSA’s Website Advisory Committee. Follow her at @ginaseymour.


2016 National Advisory Council: Equity in Education

On May 19, 2016 Scholastic invited its National Advisory Council—an esteemed group of educational thought leaders—to participate in a day-long dialogue about equity in education. The 2016 National Advisory Council (NAC) includes:

  • Deb Delisle, CEO of Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)

  • Chris Lehmann, Founding Principal, Science Leadership Academy / Assistant Superintendent, Innovation Network, School District of Philadelphia

  • Dr. Karen Mapp, Senior Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education / Faculty Director of the Education Policy and Management Masters Program

  • Chirlane McCray, First Lady, New York City

  • Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year 

  • Dr. Josh Garcia, Deputy Superintendent, Tacoma Public Schools

  • Dr. Walter Gilliam, Ph.D., Director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy / Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine

The discussion among this diverse group of educators yielded several common themes and imperatives; among them, a holistic approach to supporting both students and teachers; the importance of systemic learning supports and deep family and community engagement; and differentiated approaches to both student instruction and professional development for teachers. Our panelists stressed the need for innovative thinking around equity that acknowledges the necessity of deep, systemic change.

Dick Robinson, Scholastic’s Chairman and CEO, opened the event with a reminder to challenge our own thinking about equity in education: “Today is different than yesterday—our job is to think of the national classroom, with kids from all kinds of economic strata and all different home lives.”

Below is a selection of ideas, experiences and imperatives from the 2016 National Advisory Council on Equity in Education.

When asked what issues were at the core of their work, the National Advisory Council highlighted professional development for teachers, forging family and community partnerships, turning research into actionable policy for children and families, and making mental health services and early childhood education priorities. Shanna Peeples, 2015 National Teacher of the Year, said, “The heart of my work is my heart, and there is a line down the center. On one side is the ‘majority-minority.’ Many are refugees, who can read and write their way into a better life. And on the other side are the teachers who help them, and I want those teachers to see themselves as artists and warriors.”

What does equity in education mean to you?

Chirlane McCray: It means meeting children where they are, and making sure they have the resources they need, like staff, books and programs. There is no one-size-fits-all, and from my perspective, which is the lens of mental health, we’re not doing that. There is no greater barrier to learning than not having mental wellness.

Walter Gilliam: Equity and social justice are at the heart of early childhood education. Children in preschool are expelled at three times the rate of older children, and African-American kids are expelled at 2–3 times the rate of other children. The problem is that we take the data meant for African-American children, apply it to all children, and then push African-American children out the back door. We need to protect the access of those children who gave us the data in the first place.

Deb Delisle: I have a saying: “Every student, every day, some success, some way.” That is equity to me. We need differentiation of resources and support structures for all children; it’s a human rights imperative.

Chris Lehmann: Education is supposed to be our silver bullet, but it’s a parental meritocracy. If a child’s parents are wealthy and live in a wealthy place, that child gets more dollars spent on him or her. And that is unconscionable to me. It denies humanity and their agency.

Karen Mapp: We have not looked in the mirror and studied our own biases, stereotypes and assumptions about the kids we say we want to help. Have we really thought about what it takes to move that agenda forward? Do we know what to do? Do you want to live in a world of illusion and ignorance or a world of truth? If you want to be a warrior for social justice, it means a lot of hard work.

Shanna Peeples: Equality is everyone gets shoes. Equity is all the shoes fit. Teachers are the frontline soldiers working toward making sure all shoes fit. Part of that is innovation. I ask you to keep asking yourselves, what can you do to keep good teachers teaching? Provide them with what they need and show them how to innovate with what they have. 

Josh Garcia: We can’t take a piece of puzzle, reshape it, and try to put it back in. We have to rebuild the puzzle. We keep trying to solve this issue with small pieces when we don’t even agree on what success is for kids. We need to use data in an ethical manner, build systems and ecosystems in mental health and early learning, and challenge those among us who don’t do that.

The most important variable in learning is a knowledgeable and inspiring teacher—but these teachers don’t always end up in schools where kids need them the most. How do we fix that?

SP: It takes political will, and a lot of things we don’t want to do. We tell teachers the problems are their fault. But instead of telling teachers, maybe we should listen to what teachers have to say. I know it’s crazy, but maybe we know how to do some stuff!

DD: Why not ask teachers, “What do you need to stay in the school?” People leave because of the issues with support structures and leadership. Money helps, but it isn’t the answer. The key is the joint partnership of highly effective leaders and highly effective teachers.

CM: Think about where our teachers are coming from, and staff schools with people who are from the communities where they work. So many kids go through the school system and never have a teacher that looks like them.

KM: Look at who’s doing good work, and follow the practices they put in place.

JG: Teachers need data and strategies to reach kids, and they need time to plan. Writing an effective lesson plan—just one—takes hours and hours!

WG: What amazes me is that we seem to believe that we can provide equity for children without providing equity for the adults who help them. It’s the same principle as the oxygen mask instructions you get on an airplane—in order to help kids, you must be able to help yourself.

When you think about systems of support that teachers need most, what would be at the top of your list?

KM: Teachers stay at schools where there are strong relationships of trust between schools and families. We need to ask families what they want, and what they know, because they can share a lot about their children that will help teachers be better practitioners in the classroom. Sometimes we assume that some families don’t know anything—and we have to be very careful about that. We don’t want to make assumptions that they don’t have knowledge. We also need to make sure our families are not our clients—I used to say “clients,” but I don’t anymore—families are our co-producers and our co-creators of equitable education for children.

DD: They need the right culture and climate. High standards don’t mean anything if they don’t wrap their arms around every kid and every educator. And professional development can’t be canned—it needs to be personalized because each one of us will approach it differently.

SP: We need job-embedded teacher-coaches.

We know that students from higher-income areas have eight times more books than classrooms in low income schools, and 61% of low-income families have no books in the home. How does the distribution of resources contribute to equity?

JG: Books aren’t the problem. The waste in the system is the adverse experiences our kids are facing, which are then brought into the classroom, and this impacts not only the students, but the adults as well.

WG: We need to invest in school-based mental health, and de-stigmatize it by putting those services right into the community-based programs.

DD: Over-reliance on standardized tests will not bring us to equity. If we continue to define student success as the big thick envelope senior year, or the ELA and math skills, we will continue to fail.

Check back in this space for ongoing dialogue on equity in education. In coming weeks we will be featuring posts from several of our National Advisory Council members.


“Ten Tips” from Phyllis C. Hunter: The First in a New Video Series

Scholastic Education is excited to introduce a new video series called “Ten Tips." Each installment will feature a prominent literacy expert providing quick, practical, and easy-to-apply strategies for building literacy skills and fostering student achievement.

The series kicks off with Ten Tips from Phyllis C. Hunter. Phyllis is the creator of the Phyllis C. Hunter Classroom Library (2nd ed.), and is the author of It's Not Complicated! What I Know for Sure About Helping Our Students of Color Become Successful Readers. Below, we're starting with Tip #10: Talk, let them hear words! 

If you have ever seen Phyllis speak, you may have heard her famous “eggplant story,” which illustrates the crucial role oral language plays in reading. 

I always tell the eggplant story because I was once a speech and language therapist, and I know how important oral language is and how it relates to reading. Many of our children who experience reading difficulty lack of oral language preparation. This is supported by Hart & Risely's 2003 study which found that some of our kids hear many more words than others, and it continues as a deficit when they begin to learn to read.

So I was in the grocery store late one night, and I saw a mother and she looked pretty haggard. She had two kids with her, one child riding in the basket who was probably a kindergartner, and one walking with her who looked to be in junior high. The kid in the basket looked at a glistening pile of eggplant, and pointed to it, and asked her mother, “What’s that?”

The mom said, “Don’t ask me any questions. It’s too hot.” Now, in Houston it was hot that night, probably 100 degrees. But I felt sorry for the kid because she didn’t get any answer at all to that question. And while I was standing there contemplating that, another mother walked up. She had a kid about the same age, and this kid looked over at the glistening eggplant and asked, “What’s that?”

And the second mother said, “Oh, that’s eggplant, but we don’t eat it.”

I thought to myself, well, at least this kid got a label, a name—the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. And then a third mother walked up. And she also had a kid who looked at the same eggplant, pointed to it and asked, “What is that?”

And the third mother said, “Oh, that’s an eggplant. Look at its smooth and shiny exterior.” She picked it up and said, “I estimate that this eggplant weighs about 2 pounds. The sign says $1.99 for a pound, how much do you think this one would cost? Four dollars, you’re right! We should buy it. I think eggplant is a part of Italian cuisine. Do you remember when your aunt made something called veal parmigiana? I think there’s a dish called eggplant parmigiana. We should look up the recipe online and make it with eggplant.”

Now the kid is saying, “It’s late! This is more than I wanted to know!” But the difference in these three answers is clear. This experience in the supermarket let me know how un-level the playing field is going to be for those three kids when their teacher reads a story about the farmer’s market, and talks about the eggplant. Which of those kids is going to have some background knowledge? Oral language is key to good readers.

Interested in learning more? Check out the video below on the importance of oral language, and Phyllis's ten tips for raising successful readers.


Stay tuned for upcoming series from experts such as Laura Robb and Pam Allyn.


Live, Laugh, Love to Read: Literacy and Family Engagement at the Library of Congress

On April 28, 2016, the Library of Congress hosted 250 children and their families at Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,  an annual event—and one of the largest of its type in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area—that has been supported by the Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day Foundation since 1993. Bryonna Head, Chair of the Activity Center, describes below how the day engaged children and their families around literacy, reading and careers.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day is more than just a career day; it is about mentoring, and its origins are rooted in social justice and equality. Celebrated on the 4th Thursday of every April, Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day was originally created to cultivate positive self-esteem in young girls, empowering and encouraging them to make connections between academic success and a balanced and positive work life. (In 2007, the program expanded to include boys.)  The foundation’s use of the term “our children” has always intended the inclusion of kids beyond the immediate household, welcoming children from extended family or friends, as well as the wider local community. 

The theme for this year’s event was “Sparking Aha! Moments,” and so as the Library of Congress planning committee, we knew we needed to ignite a thought, spark and idea, or inspire a dream. In the broader context of closing bookstores and the popularity of e-readers, we considered how we can still share with children the joy of reading, or of visiting the local library to read, interact, and discover a good book. The ‘spark’ we hoped to impart is that reading is not only educational—it can be joyful. (As a kid, I remember reading my favorite books, and using my imagination to create stories of my own. In school, I wrote the best book reports when I could choose a book that interested me and share it with my peers.) For all ages—toddlers, kids, teens and adults—reading is a part of life that can connect us, and take us on journeys that live on in our memories and imaginations. 

At the Library of Congress, we try to spark these “aha!” moments every day by engaging the community and sharing the joy of reading. Our Young Readers Center is a place especially designed for young people to interact with books and reading through special programs, exhibits and events. The Young Readers Center works hard to cultivate the love of reading among youth, and to educate parents on how they can continue that encouragement at home. (For example, for children who love to play video games, read a book together about video game design!) In addition to the Young Readers Center, the Library of Congress hosts—through participating local public libraries—the ‘A Book That Shaped Me’ Summer Writing Contest that encourages rising 5th and 6th graders to reflect on books that have made a personal impact on their lives. This is a fun and rewarding way to encourage literacy through family and community involvement. (And winners will be honored at the National Book Festival in September!) 

The joy of reading is a right of passage for life, liberty, and literacy. Through programs like Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day, and our ongoing efforts through resources like the Young Readers Center and Summer Writing Contest, the Library of Congress is committed to helping all young people access joy through reading, and make connections between that joy and academic and professional achievement.

Alabama's Big Growth

This article originally appeared in Administr@tor magazine. 

In 2012, our new state superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, and our state board of education stood at a crossroads. Our graduation rate for 2011 was 72 percent, and our 740,000-plus students had had more than 1,900,000 unexcused absences in 2011–12. Dr. Bice knew, as did district and local school personnel, that teachers alone could not be responsible for improving these numbers and building momentum in Alabama. But how should we move forward?

In 2012, Dr. Bice asked me to join his team at the Alabama State Department of Education as the director of the Office of Learning Support—a new office created to concentrate on the elimination of barriers to teaching and learning. Dr. Bice (who just announced his retirement) had a vision for leading the state education system through major transformations that included an equal and strategic focus on student support systems to ensure that barriers would be addressed in a comprehensive, sustainable manner.   

I was fortunate to have served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in Alabama for more than 29 years, and I and my colleagues recognize not just the crucial need to focus on instruction but also the importance of developing better ways for schools, families, and communities to support student success by addressing barriers. To that end, this goal requires that everyone works collaboratively to provide safe and supportive environments in which children can live, learn, work, and play. Improved instruction alone cannot address the wide range of barriers that interfere with schools reaching their goals.

Dr. Bice was interested in replicating and bringing to scale a model that was already working in a handful of locations in Alabama through a partnership between Scholastic and the state DOE. Between 2011 and 2015, Montevallo High School in Shelby County improved graduation rates from 68 percent to 92 percent. Since working with Scholastic to implement what’s called an integrated learning supports (ILS) framework, Montevallo High School recorded the following:

  • 42 percent fewer out-of-school suspensions
  • 55 percent fewer in-school suspensions
  • 20 percent reduction in absences (recorded in 2013)

Under the leadership of Superintendent Randy Fuller and Shelby County learning supports leader Melissa Youngblood, Montevallo has worked with Scholastic coach Rhonda Neal-Waltman to develop a systematic approach that aligns instruction, learning supports, and leadership decisions. The continued impact emphasizes the critical need for schools to have a unified and comprehensive system of supports in place to address the barriers to learning and teaching that districts are facing.

So, what are learning supports, and why will focusing on them move the needle? The most common approaches to school improvement focus on either instruction or management and governance. What’s often missing is a plan for addressing barriers to learning and creating a system of learning supports.

The integrated learning supports system that we adopted is a process by which schools, families, and communities facilitate learning by working together to alleviate barriers, both external and internal. ILS doesn’t just focus on an individual student’s challenges but on a school-based learning supports leadership team that works on the mechanisms needed for overall cohesion and ongoing development of programs and systems. It puts the responsibility on all staff to ensure that teaching and learning are successful.

It is about putting a system in place to catch students before they fail, before they drop out, before they fall through the cracks. Rather than just address the problems “kid-by-kid,” the ILS system looks at trend data and creates a systems solution. This process includes identifying the fragmentation that exists within services and increasing the effectiveness and efficiency by which the services operate. ILS guides school improvement through a framework to address the specific student, school, and district needs. If we keep encountering the same challenges in our schools, why are we approaching them each year as if it were the first time? If we already know what barriers we are going to hit, then we should have systemic procedures in place to address them head on.

In June 2013, 10 districts volunteered to be part of the pioneering group to lead the learning supports work in Alabama. Dr. Bice mandated that every district in the state be trained on the ILS system by 2018. Currently, we are partnering with Scholastic to work with 51 districts across the state, and we will continue to build statewide capacity through webinars; district, regional, and state training sessions; and on-site coaching.

In the fall of 2015, the Alabama DOE received a grant funded by American Express, in partnership with the National Association of Secondary Principals, to support the work of school leaders. The grant was awarded to the DOE’s Office of Learning Support, which created Alabama Strong, a three-year, job-embedded project that offers customized services to 73 principals and aspiring principals in Alabama. This work will continue to build the capacity of school leaders by leveraging a three--component ILS system to address the barriers to learning identified by data and student needs.

Districts across the state using integrated learning supports have already seen a rise in student achievement and have been removed from Alabama’s failing schools list. Impact indicators can be identified by our state’s cohort graduation rate increase to 89 percent for 2015 and our truancy rate decrease to 117,175 for 2014–15.

This is just the beginning of what can happen when implementing a system for learning supports. Dr. Bice reminds us that it’s about the children sitting at those desks. If we always focus on what’s best for the child sitting in the chair, how can we make the wrong decisions? We’re here to serve students. 



What Happened at #EWA16? Some Twitter Highlights

Earlier this week, the Education Writers Association held its 69th annual national seminar in Boston, MA, inviting the nation's education reporters to open a dialogue about "The Quest for Quality and Equity" in education.

#EWA16 is a great place to catch up on conference highlights, including important conversations around ESSA, the achievement gap, diversity and school integration, award-winning education stories, and the state of education reporting. Below are a few highlights from the conversations that happened online: 


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