Cultivating a Culturally Responsive Classroom Community

Launching a magnificent school year begins with cultivating a strong sense of community with the students at your school. Establishing a culturally responsive culture is not just the responsibility of the teachers in the classroom, school leaders should also communicate that this is a priority and support each teachers’ efforts. Classroom community ultimately reflects beliefs about how students should experience learning—and it is an immense feat to get a group of wonderfully diverse students with unique cultures, identities, passions, talents, and needs to learn and thrive together. 

Productive, culturally responsive classroom learning communities produce collective agreements about the values, relationships and behaviors that best serve the learning goals of all students and are cultivated throughout the year. Below are suggestions for how teachers can approach establishing an effective culturally responsive culture in the classroom—efforts school leaders should support and encourage, as well as mirror in their own interactions with staff. 

Start with Relationships, Trust and Rapport

Building trust and rapport with each student individually is one of the first things to consider when building a culturally responsive classroom community. As humans, we are all dependent on the quality and depth of our relationships. This is especially true for students, since most must navigate multiple relationships in and outside of school with varying levels of depth. Building trust and rapport, then, should serve as a teacher’s top priority at the beginning of the school year. 

Getting to know who your students are as individuals is one of the hallmarks of a culturally responsive classroom community. Understanding the cultural, academic, linguistic and social identities of your students comes through deep, authentic connections and relationships. This type of relationship building can feel risky at times since building a deep level of trust and rapport with students can push us personally to places of vulnerability. 

But it’s critical to remember that students have to believe their teacher cares about them. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain (2015), shares that “We have to not only care about students in a general sense, but also actively care for them in a physical and emotional sense.” When teachers authentically and consistently demonstrate caring behaviors toward their students, the critical trust that builds relationships grows, as does the culturally responsive classroom community. 

Tips for Practice

  • Be a storyteller. Incorporate your story and the stories of students into the life of the classroom. Create ways for you and your students to express individual identities and share personal experiences.

  • Model active, authentic listening. Listening conveys a sense of respect that is essential to building trust and expresses to students your deep interest in who they are and what they have to share.

  • Demonstrate acts of caring. Collectively decide as a class community what it looks like and sounds like to care for and about each other—then do it.

  • Be transparent about your desire to get to know students individually. Tell them your aim is to build trust and rapport as a classroom community.

Build Shared Agreements

Clear agreements or expectations coupled with supporting routines, processes and structures will help students make sense of a culturally responsive learning community and navigate it with confidence and ownership. Because shared agreements build community, the process for developing them should rely heavily on student voice and input. The process should be facilitated in a way that ensures all students can contribute.  

In preparing for the process, teachers should give attention to the specific social, emotional, and cognitive growth and development goals for all students in the classroom. For example, what essential thinking routines will students need in order to engage in deep learning? How will students work together in different grouping structures (whole group, small group, individually)? How should whole group dialogue look and sound?

Tips for Practice

  • Utilize free resources about developing classroom agreements, such as this blog post from Wendy Ward Hoffer, PEBC Education Senior Director, which provides sample agreements: Build Community with Shared Agreements.

  • After co-creating the shared agreements, visually display them throughout the classroom.

  • Engage in periodic classroom rituals such as connection circles, morning meetings or afternoon huddles focused on how well the class is demonstrating the agreements.

  • Co-create a metaphor for a culturally responsive classroom community with your students. Metaphors cause us to think differently and deeper about a concept. They also create greater clarity and can serve as a powerful reminder and barometer for your classroom community throughout the school year.

Building relationships, trust and rapport with students one-on-one can remove educators from their comfort zone, and they should be supported in establishing authentic connections. Likewise, shared agreements built for individual classrooms should mirror efforts to build collective agreements between school leadership and staff. Both actions are important first steps in creating a culturally responsive environment in your school. Doing so takes effort, and every member of your team—from teachers, leadership, instructional coaches and more—has a role to play. 

Two Ways to Support a Learning Community

As a new school year begins, of course we wish that all children could walk into the classroom each day ready to learn. In an ideal world, our classrooms are populated by children who are well-rested, well-fed and have everything they need to reach their full academic potential.

The reality, as we know, is quite different. Data from Scholastic’s Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education reveals that principals and teachers nationwide believe that equity in education should be a national priority. But the majority of educators say that many of their students face barriers to learning from outside the school environment. These barriers are prevalent across poverty levels, including 66% of educators in low-poverty schools. This means that every morning, our teachers work with children who might be facing family or personal crisis, need mental health services, are living in poverty, or are homeless or hungry. Providing equitable educational opportunities for our students is a complex challenge.

This striking data highlights the need for schools to support students beyond providing instruction.

One thing we can do right away is to actively foster a community of readers that learns about the world and each other through books. Carefully selected read-alouds can support social-emotional learning in every grade. When teachers read aloud, they can introduce new concepts with support, engage in conversation and dialogue, and provide students with prompts for response writing.

Below are selections that teachers can read with students to support social-emotional learning:

Kindergarten: Llama Llama, Mad at Mama; My Brother Charlie; Clifford’s Good Deeds: Be Responsible

1st Grade: Clifford the Firehouse Dog; I Read Signs; Officer Buckle and Gloria

2nd Grade: The Bully from the Black Lagoon; A Bad Case of Stripes; Giraffes Can’t Dance

3rd Grade: Common Ground, The Water, Earth, and Air We Share; Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot; Double Team

4th Grade: The Hero Two Doors Down; Thank You, Mr. Falker; Flora & Ulysses

5th Grade: The Survival Guide to Bullying; Drita, My Homegirl; Climate Change

We, as educators, are important members of the learning community. And as we support students, we must also continue to learn ourselves so that we can meet our challenges head-on. The Teacher & Principal School Report revealed that 97% of teachers and 100% of principals want effective, ongoing, relevant professional development. Among the areas in which both principals and teachers want PD are to gain strategies for working with families, provide support for students in crisis and strategies for develop a positive school culture and climate.

This school year, we must remember that our students come to us carrying more than just their books and backpacks. It is up to us engage in active learning as well, so that together we can work to help all children achieve academic success. 

Meriden Public Schools: Here, Students Succeed

Several years ago, Meriden Public Schools faced troubling academic results, low graduation rates, and high suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Most students come from minority backgrounds and more than 70% qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The district needed a new philosophy—a new approach. We had to make sure that students were at the center of all our decisions.

Transformation to student-centered learning environments required a shift in culture, curriculum and instruction. The district knew that achieving equity for all students required additional support, as well as rigorous content. The goal was to better prepare all graduates to be college, career, and civic ready. The district implemented student-centered learning, opened access to Advanced Placement and all higher level courses, implemented a one-to-one program, expanded learning time schools, and offered numerous enrichment and credit earning opportunities.

Our Student-Centered Learning Approach

Leveraging our collaborative relationship with our teachers union and partnering with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation provided the Meriden Public Schools with the impetus to begin our change process. Professional learning for our staff, coupled with research on the importance of challenging all students, were essential components in our student-centered approach. By utilizing grant funding to add support staff from our current teacher ranks, teachers would not only hear about student-centered learning, they would see it in action, and receive support as they began to create flexible learning environments.

Creating student-centered learning environments started for us by increasing academic rigor for all students and developing a growth mindset with students and staff. We gave students greater choice and voice in their learning and supported staff as they personalized and blended their instruction. Collapsing levels, eliminating course prerequisites, adopting no zero grading policies, and assuring that curriculum was implemented with fidelity were our first steps on the student-centered learning journey. In addition, learning environments were no longer simply rows of desks, but flexible learning spaces that support personalization of learning.

Our Digital Transformation

With no district-issued device, and facing restrictive technology use policies, we knew that we had to garner buy-in from all stakeholders if we were going to successfully launch a digital transformation. Bring Your Own Device guidelines and one-to-one district-issued devices were essential in our digital transformation. Devices alone are useless if there is not digital content in place to personalize and differentiate the learning for students, so we partnered with digital content providers to support our students. These partnerships provide greater opportunities for equity for all students and professional learning for our teachers. Through the use of digital content, our students are now being challenged at their own academic level and they are accessing learning opportunities anytime, anywhere.

Our Expanded Learning Opportunities

Today's students need to learn more and teachers and educators often feel there is not enough time in the day to meet these growing demands. To address this challenge, Meriden Public Schools offers: three expanded-day elementary schools, where all students attend 100 minutes more per day—equaling over 40 additional schools days; STEM academies and enrichment courses on Saturday mornings at our local community college; summer online learning credit opportunities; personalized learning experiences that are designed by students themselves, and teacher-facilitated summer experiences to ensure that all elementary students are reading on grade level.

The summer program is celebrated with a Scholastic read-aloud where students receive a book bag filled with Scholastic books that they will see in their classrooms in the fall. In the Meriden Public Schools, learning is encouraged outside the walls of our classrooms. Our Family School Liaison Team supports our parent engagement efforts by sponsoring our Celebration of Readers each spring. Family literacy nights and One School, One Book foster the love of reading, and encourage parent/guardian involvement.

Our Results

Along with growing academic success and greater student and staff satisfaction, suspensions have decreased by 78%, expulsions by 91% and arrests by 92% since 2011. The Meriden Public Schools is creating schools where students succeed. The district has achieved some of its highest scores in history on the Smarter Balance Assessments and PSATs. These positive trends validate our efforts and we are excited about tomorrow's possibilities.

 

 

Bookmarked: The Gallup Survey, Dear America, SEL and Leading and Learning

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

Last week Scholastic Education's CAO Michael Haggen wrote in a back-to-school message that it is imperative for educators (and families) to read widely with children, so that as a community we can all work to understand the world we live in.

He wrote, "Those of us who spend our days helping kids navigate the world must establish a powerful community of readers and learners so that we all may be informed citizens."

Yesterday The Atlantic published Dear America: Reading Through History by Amy Weiss-Meyer, who describes her experience as a New York City elementary school student on September 11, 2001. Not long afer, she discovered the Dear America series, and dove in to the world of historical fiction. "Dear America was, on some level, a comforting reminder that I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to live through history in the messy, unfolding present."

Speaking of helping children navigate the world, 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year Lyon Terry argues in EdWeek in Social-Emotional Skills Should Be an Integral Part of Every Lesson We Teach  that social-emotional learning must be integrated into learning, not viewed as a separate add-on: "Integrating social and emotional skills with our content lessons helps our students see others as thoughtful, engaged people. These skills give them the ability to interact, create knowledge together, and understand an individual's role in group dynamics. Social and emotional skills are also the roots of love and empathy, emotions that are needed today more than ever."

On HuffPo, Chris Minnich (Council of Chief State School Officers) and Deborah Delisle (ASCD) write in Learning and Leading: Giving power to the professionals to learn and lead together that "teachers are lifelong learners and need to be supported through each stage of their careers. Most importantly, we recognize that one of their most powerful learning endeavors is when educators connect and learn from one another."

Finally, The Gallup 2017 Survey of K-12 School District Superintendents. Of note: Superintendents say that "their district's greatest challenges are helping students whose circumstances affect their achievement and dealing with budget shortfalls."

LINKS:

What I Want the World to Know About Reading in My Country: International Literacy Day

Today, September 8, 2017, is International Literacy Day, when governments, organizations, and communities around the world recognize and celebrate the magic of books and reading.

This year we checked in with Scholastic International: David Peagram (Australia), Nancy Pearson (Canada), Neeraj Jain (India), Amanda Clarke (United Arab Emirates), Catherine Bell (United Kingdom) and Michael Haggen (United States).

We asked two questions: 

  • What do you want the world to know about reading in your country?
  • What is your favorite children's book?

Their thoughtful replies are below (nearly everyone was reluctant to commit to just one favorite children's book!).

Australia: David Peagram (Managing Director, Scholastic Australia & New Zealand)

The Australian Curriculum says: Australia is a linguistically and culturally diverse country, with participation in many aspects of Australian life dependent on effective communication and literacy. Australians pedestal the development of reading and literacy as gateway skills, essential in helping young people develop the knowledge and skills needed for almost every aspect of adult life. We believe it helps them become ethical, thoughtful, informed and active members of society.

Literacy plays a most important part in developing the understanding, attitudes and capabilities of those who will take responsibility for Australia’s future. Reading paves the critical paths for literacy and the intellectual growth of all young Australians.

Scholastic Australia agrees: we love reading! Whether it be reading aloud or reading together or reading all by ourselves, tucked into a corner nook – reading is our favourite activity, from the beaches of Sydney to the deserts of Perth and everywhere in between.

Favourite children's book: Possum Magic (Mem Fox)—still in the Australian top ten of all time after 34 years!

Canada: Nancy Pearson (President, Scholastic Canada)

Scholastic Canada recently published its first Kids and Family Reading Report™, and it revealed a fascinating portrait of reading in this country. We can confirm: all ages of Canadians love to read, in both official languages–English and French.

They also view reading as the number one habit that impacts future success. Canadians value humour and personal choice when it comes to reading. Humour has been one of our greatest exports for so long, we’re delighted to see it’s still a priority for our youngest readers! Although this wasn’t revealed in our report, I think it’s safe to say our long winters have shaped us to enjoy curling up indoors with a good book, or perhaps that’s just me…

One of my absolute favourites was a book called From Anna, which recently celebrated its 45th year in publication. Author Jean Little is a national treasure, who has been decorated with every known award for her groundbreaking storytelling—a feat that is amplified by the fact that she’s been legally blind for most of her life.

But for me, this story about a young girl whose family moves from Nazi Germany to Canada in the 1930s, was my first understanding of books set in Canada, with references that I understood. And it’s also the most beautiful portrait of young girl dealing with loneliness, and the enormous challenges of integration. Prescient topics that are so timely today.

India: Neeraj Jain (Managing Director at Scholastic India)

India has always had a rich heritage of storytelling, from being a medium of passing down ancient religious wisdom of the vedas and the upanishads (before they were finally written down as texts) to a grandmother telling her grandchildren about the adventures of her childhood. With time, we saw an increase in the number of nuclear families and decrease in storytelling. Storybooks and read-aloud are slowly starting to bridge this gap, with families increasingly understanding the importance of read-aloud and picture books. While reading time continues to compete against screen time and play time, yet we see an upward trend in the reading habits of children in India.

It's very difficult to pick a favourite children's book. As a child, I loved a comic book series called Chacha Chaudhary. It revolved around two main characters: Chacha Chaudhary, who could think faster than a computer; and Sabu the super-powerful giant from Jupiter. This series had everything, super powers, aliens and action coupled with a quirky sense of humour and bizarre situations.

One of my favourites currently is The Bad Guys. Aaron Blabey has chosen a unique and interesting set of characters who are always on a mission to help people thereby trying to fight their ill-reputed image of being bad guys. It makes you laugh out loud and at the same time keeps you on the edge to know what happens next.

United Arab Emirates: Amanda Clarke (Sales Director, Scholastic Middle East & Africa)

Last year was the ‘Year of Reading’ in the UAE, so there is a huge focus on reading. Scholastic ran a competition for whole year, giving away over 40,000 books. So I think we have contributed a lot to the love of reading in the UAE.

It’s so difficult to choose one book!! Can I choose a series? I love, love, love the Defender of the Realm series by Mark Huckerby and Nick Olster. The second book left me biting my nails in anguish—I cannot wait for the third book.

I also have a favorite picture book called Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy, which is a fantastic book about a mummy elephant trying to get just five minutes peace from her hectic family. In the end she gets just under two. It’s such a great, funny picture book.

United Kingdom: Catherine Bell (Managing Director, Scholastic UK)

Children in the United Kingdom love reading. The children’s book market has grown by 11.7% this year, driven by a range of wonderful books from a host of talented authors and illustrators. 72% of schools say reading is on their school improvement programme, and over half of children 6–11 years told us that their school book fair is their number-one source for reading for pleasure.

Funny books are still the most-wanted genre by children themselves, and 49% of children say that the person who does the best job of picking books is “me.”The mix of talented writers and illustrators and such enthusiasm from children makes us very proud to support International Literacy Day celebrations.

Favourite children's book: Oh, this is too hard! If you force me I would settle on Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I loved being transported to the world of 1930s London when I read the story as a child. It was even more magical to read it out loud to my children and to delight in their enjoyment at the same world and the strong and determined Fossil sisters.

United States: Michael Haggen (Chief Academic Officer, Scholastic Education)

Now, more than ever, American educators understand the importance of our students reading more nonfiction that allows them to explore the world and learn more about others. With diverse classrooms and the English language learners population growing each year, diverse books can be used to tell a variety of stories. The Scholastic 6th Edition of the Kids & Family Reading Report found that ninety-one percent of children ages 6-17 say “my favorite books are the one that I have picked out myself.”

My favorite children’s book is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. When reading this book to kindergarteners, first and second graders, we all relate to the woes of Alexander but understand tomorrow is a new day, even in Australia.

To learn more about kids' and parents' attitudes and behaviors around books and reading in Australia, Canada, India, the UK and the US, go to scholastic.com/readingreport.

Read more: Working Magic: International Literacy Day, September 8, 2016 (Lois Bridges) 

September is the New January: Resolutions for Family Engagement

We know that as soon as school supplies hit the store shelves, summer is over. Although January 1 is the official start of the New Year, many educators consider Back to School the unofficial New Year. That’s the best time to reflect on the achievements from the previous academic year, reassess school and student learning goals and recommit to current and future initiatives.

Then you can review areas of need, refocus energies and make a resolution or two to hold yourself accountable and stay committed.

One of area schools and districts continuously resolve to improve year after year is family engagement. Why family engagement? While most educators recognize the importance of family engagement on students’ academic achievement, few can articulate a comprehensive plan to assess and then implement family engagement effectively. The data from the Teacher and Principal School Report supports this: 74% of educators say they need help engaging the families of their students.

Here is the good news: in recent years, we have identified several proven practices to engage families effectively—things that you can start doing tomorrow. I've taken the liberty of narrowing the list down to my top three. I promise you, implementing any one of these practices will make a big difference. (All three? Family engagement trifecta!)

  1. Nurture Relationships. Strong, trusting relationships are the cornerstone of an effective home-school partnership. Effective relationships promote trust and respect between home and school. Make sure families feel welcome every time they walk into the school. (Read more about welcoming here.) Spend time getting to know families and provide them with multiple opportunities to get to know you. Parents don't need to know your full life history, but offering tiny nuggets about yourself help will help build genuine connections.

  2. Leverage Strengths. You get the best from people when you focus on their strengths, not their flaws. A strength-based approach increases confidence and empowers families to be active, knowledgeable and informed. We all have something to contribute. Once you’ve established that trusting relationship with your families, you can find out how you can best work together.

  3. Make it Relevant. What matters most to families? Their child. Families want to know how to best support their child's learning. When designing family engagement events or activities, make sure it relates directly to your students’ learning goals, offers the family an opportunity to learn a new skill, and incorporates time to practice the new skill. (Learn how to help families build competence and confidence here.) Giving families the time, space and support to practice and receive feedback will greatly increase the chances they will try what they learned at home with their child.

As you head back to school this year, I challenge you to implement all three practices. Cheers to a fabulous "New Year"!

Back to School: 4 Key Ways to Read Together for Growth

Children receive information at a furious pace. Whether it is current events on a global scale or the local library message board, each child will bring his or her personal world into the classroom this back-to-school season.

Knowing that, coupled with the understanding of how increasingly complex our world seems—especially in light of the civil unrest in Charlottesville and the ongoing destruction by Hurricane Harvey—many of us feel increased urgency around helping kids make sense of it all. Of course, this process is not without its own complexity; students need us–educators–to help them learn to take in information, contextualize, analyze and respond to it. And we need to partner with families in these efforts. It is, frankly, hard work. Those of us who spend our days helping kids navigate the world must establish a powerful community of readers and learners so that we all may be informed citizens.

This commitment to reading and learning can and should reach every member of the school community—district and school leaders, teachers, students and the parents who support them—each member of this community is linked. Imagine us reading together as parents, educators and children; reading to not just prepare for a test, but reading to prepare to know and grow.

Reading and learning are opportunities for growth, not just for students, but for all readers. In fact, I think there are many adults who would be surprised by how much they learn from revisiting a children’s book from their youth or talking with a child today about what they are reading. Personally and professionally, it is critical to make sure we’re always learning and growing in order to better support our students.

Below are four key ways to foster a community of readers who learn and navigate the world together.

Look at informational text

By diving in to informational text, readers can acquire background knowledge that will help them contextualize future reading. The more information they have, gained by reading widely about their own history and the world around them, the greater their power to make choices, form opinions and communicate their ideas.

But this reading practice happens best when we read, discuss and share together as members of a larger community. In particular, younger children are learning who they are, both as individuals and as citizens of the world, both at home and in the classroom. Children need to grow up learning that we are diverse as a society in our views, experiences and knowledge, which makes us stronger together. Reading and discussion can guide us all.

Read with curiosity

In Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst argue that while students are often taught to extract information from text, the act of reading ought to be transactional. In other words, reading is a multifaceted experience on the path to deeper understanding. They write:

“Additionally, we must teach students how to read with curiosity. And they need to be willing to raise questions. We want them to ask not only, ‘What does this text say?’ but also, ‘What does it say to me? How does it change who I am? How might it change what I do in the world?’” (Beers & Probst, 23.)

This approach to reading is inherently communal: the reader interacts with the text in a dynamic way, and there follows an opportunity for exploration and conversation. Reading with curiosity helps all of us both become better readers and better citizens.

Strengthen the home-to-school connection

Support for readers happens in the classroom, but we have to make sure that the home-to-school connection starts strong, and remains so throughout the school year (all year, really).

We know from the Teacher & Principal School Report that educators hold strong, positive views around the importance of family engagement and the need for partnerships between schools and parents.

A critical component of making this connection and forging an effective partnership is bringing families in to your community of readers. This means helping them learn strategies for both reading with their children (of all ages), and talking to their children about what they read. And it means being prepared to engage and support all families, as well as by making connections with community partners whose work can support and enhance your students’ achievement. To do so, principals and district leaders assume the role of lead learners, learning alongside teachers and staff. 

Keep reading, keep learning, keep growing

When we give our students the time, space and resources to read widely and deeply, to gather as much information as possible, they will be better equipped to make sense of their worlds and their places in it. When we think of literacy and learning as a dynamic process that incorporates growth, change, and the exchange of ideas, we are better prepared to help students grow. When we extend our school community beyond the four walls of the building, we will be more powerful. This expansive, fluid notion of reading will allow a true community of learners to flourish.

Scholastic responds to Hurricane Harvey

The images and news stories coming out of Houston and its surrounding areas are horrific. Massive flooding—the result of Hurricane Harvey—has affected hundreds of thousands of people, and the water is wreaking havoc on families and children, and of course on homes, schools, and libraries.

Scholastic is coordinating a company-wide response to support both the short-term and long-term efforts:

  • Today, Scholastic is making a $25,000 contribution to the Red Cross to aid in the immediate relief efforts.

  • Over the long term, schools will need significant donations of books to rebuild their libraries; we will work directly with our customers to determine their needs once schools reopen, and we will be accepting requests from schools via the Possible Fund. Once the needs assessment is complete, Scholastic will make a sizable book donation.

  • Scholastic Book Clubs is offering 500 free bonus points to teachers in the affected region, which will help them restock their classroom libraries to help ensure children have the books they need to help them regain a sense of normalcy.

  • Scholastic News Online offers age-appropriate reporting for children, and will be covering the effects of Harvey for young readers.

  • In addition, Scholastic offers tips for teachers and parents on how to talk to children about natural disasters.

Scholastic Book Fairs has several distribution centers in Texas. All but the branch in Houston are operating normally to help serve our customers.

If you’re interested in supporting disaster relief efforts, consider the Red Cross or Save the Children, both of which have established specific Hurricane Harvey relief funds.

Ready, Set, Read: How Hillside Public Schools Got Reading Over the Summer

My mother was my first teacher. She taught me to read, and nurtured my love of reading, filling my world with the printed word. (As a child, I had a word wall in my bedroom in place of wall paper.) A talented teacher for 40 years, she was a mentor to me during my own first year teaching.

So I know first-hand that families are children’s first teachers. We teach our children every day through our actions and expectations. All families want their children to do well, and the truth is that many families need tools and strategies to help their children succeed academically. 

My district, Hillside Public Schools, is located in Union County, New Jersey, and we serve approximately 3,000 students in grades Pre-K–12. Fifty-two percent of the student population is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The families of Hillside are hard-working families who are interested in their children’s education. Similar to many school districts, we faced the challenge of summer learning loss and finding effective ways to encourage children to keep reading during the summer.

Hillside Public Schools and Summer Reading: Partnering with Families

When I started as the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I brought almost 20 years of experience as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, and college professor. These years of experience, as well as my mom’s legacy, taught me the importance of partnering with families and communities to support student achievement.

During my first meeting with the Language Arts Supervisor, I was informed that the returns for summer reading projects were limited. As I looked into why this could be, I thought about how I had just spent the summer assisting my own son with his summer reading project. We had to go to 3 stores to find all of the books he needed, and another store for supplies to complete the project. Perhaps the problem was access—families did not have the books their children needed for summer reading.

We surveyed parents, and the data showed that many families were eager, not just for just the books, but also for workshops and materials around family literacy and the home-school connection. Once we identified a need, we collaborated so the district could provide resources: books and strategies for families. We formed a Summer Reading Committee—consisting of the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, a principal, teachers, content supervisors, the Hillside Public Library and a PTO member—and had a Summer Reading Kick-off Celebration. The Summer Reading Committee met monthly, and we revised the summer reading lists find high-interest reading material for the students.

An Important Step: Celebrating Books and Reading

We decided to make the summer reading kick-off event a fun celebration of reading, including a barbeque, music, dancing, face painting and of course summer reading packet giveaways for all students who attended. (Clifford the Big Red Dog was a hit, too!) We also offered workshop for parents to help them with strategies for reading with their children. The event was publicized in the community, on the district website and with the local media.

We’ve been able to see results from providing this access to books. In terms of data, our Language Arts scores on the PARCC assessment increased in almost all grade levels. We’ve seen small increases (1%, 4% or 5%), but we are certainly showing growth. And I also love hearing stories from students and families themselves: a grandmother, who is raising her special-needs grandson, told us that the books go everywhere with her grandson during the summer. He is never without a book, often refuses to let go of them, and truly cherishes his books. She also noted that the books and summer reading provides additional stability in her grandchild’s life.

The Second Annual Summer Reading Kick-off was an even greater success than the first: we were able to increase the participation rate thanks to positive feedback from the first annual kick-off. Families lined up before the doors opened! Moms, dads, grandparents and guardians were so excited to help their children with summer reading and the students were equally excited to receive the books. We had a blast and danced into the afternoon. It was great to see the students—and parents—rushing home to read!

Literacy Ambassadors: Building a Student-Centered Culture of Reading

Gauging the culture of reading

Consider the culture around reading in your school. It is not a question of if there is a culture of reading, because there is. However, the question is whether it is healthy, vibrant, and joyous, or tired and forced. In my district, there was a time when we had pockets of positive classroom cultures centered on literacy, but those were the exception not the rule. We worked hard to change our culture for the better this last year, but cultures don’t develop overnight and they certainly are not the work of a few. 

If you want to inculcate a love of reading, you have to provide a context for the goal, one that makes sense and is inspiring and relevant to your students. This context should include access to diverse genres, a large selection of texts for students to choose from, ample time to read, and interesting, well-curated displays. Students need a place to explore and learn how to find what excites them.

This space should be communal and this excitement should be communicable. However, educators also need to facilitate a student-driven positive culture of reading.  We, as adults, can build parameters. However, if this culture is to be authentic, then it must be built and maintained by students.

Student-driven culture 

This is where one’s personal limitations must be factored into building this context for students. As an adult who works in education (like many of you), there are a plethora of statistics that I can spout off about the importance of reading, how we can turn back the summer slide, and so forth. I can share with kids my own struggles with reading and how I overcame them. Yet, there is something that I have learned about my own personal limitations: I am not that cool.

This is a realization about my own effectiveness as the sole driver of change for students. I can share my excitement about a book, but I am not a middle schooler. My excitement might be nice, but at best I am an observer of the culture of reading that exists in my schools and in my classrooms. However, if I empower students to drive discussions, make recommendations, and serve as peer role models, an authentic vibrant culture around reading can flourish. Therefore, I don’t need to be cool, because this culture should have little to do with me and more to do with the students.

Literacy Ambassadors as our key driver

To facilitate the growth of a positive reading culture, we needed to do more than just put structures in place. So Southbridge Public Schools started a new program, the We Read Big Literacy Ambassadorship. Our student ambassadors are tasked with sharing their love of literacy within our schools and the larger community, which they do by serving as leaders in the cultivation of a culture of literacy at Southbridge. We support our Literacy Ambassadors by providing opportunities for them to share their love of reading in a variety of ways, among them reading to younger students in the elementary schools, and publishing book reviews online. They represent the idea that reading is powerful and that it is something that we can all do. They are promoting their love of books, showing other students that books can be transformative, momentary escapes, or can help them better understand themselves and others.

Our 20-plus literacy ambassadors applied by writing essays and open responses. Each child explained what their favorite book was (and why), discussed the importance of reading in their lives, and argued why they would be the ideal literacy ambassador. The results, quite frankly, were inspiring! Our students believe that this experience will give them confidence in fluency and public speaking. They talked about being teased because they were, at one time, poor readers. Now they want to share with others that if they can become readers, then anyone can. I believe their stories will shape our community in profound ways. 

Ambassadors shape the culture of reading in our schools and in the community 

These students will be working in a variety of ways during this upcoming academic year. Ambassadors will be deployed throughout the school year to visit our three elementary schools to read to those students, provide book recommendations, and have dialogue around books. In addition, I built a website where we will publish their forthcoming book reviews (WeReadBig.com) in order to extend their reach into the broader community. They also have a few exciting surprises for the community that they will debut later this year.

My desire is to have these students at the forefront as they push and create new initiatives. Our ambassadors will be able to say things to other students that, if uttered by an adult, could sound insincere and artificial. Their passion becomes infectious in a way that adults can’t typically achieve. They are the ideal ambassadors of literacy in our schools.

Read Adam Couturier's previous post: We Read Big: Reading as a Way of Life

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