Six Truths I Know For Sure About Writing

After teaching writing for over 20 years, I’ve seen the benefits of having students write regularly, genuinely, and with ownership. Of course, they perform better academically, in every subject and on standardized tests, since consistent writing practice trains students to easily access their thoughts and skillfully express them. But by writing often and with purpose, students also grow as thinkers and as human beings. They discover not only their thoughts, but themselves. Here are six truths about teaching writing that I believe from my heart:

Strong writing is powerful, and can be learned.

Although modern-day writing continues to morph into many forms, the written word persists and is more powerful than ever. The strength of a clear, engaging, meaningful message cannot be underestimated. The good news is that with practice, effective writing can be learned. I try to dispel the myth that some people are born talented writers and everyone else is not. I strive to convince students that the stuff of their lives can be a basis for powerful writing, and that they can learn to write well if they commit to it.

Writing is an extension of thought, not just a record of it.

The act of writing always yields new insights. Often, learners don’t know what they think about a topic until they start writing about it. When students begin to experience this truth they gain confidence and excitement—writing becomes an adventure. The brain and the heart reveal themselves through writing, if it is practiced. The learner must show up for it, though: like a sport or hobby, one must show up for practice. One must be present.

Writing helps the writer be present and notice.

As with any task, it is possible to become absorbed when writing and experience full presence. One must turn inward; one must be silent. What a beautiful gift to give to students in a world full of loud, shallow distractions. And writing can give students even more than that—in order to write well in any genre, students must look deeply into their own daily lives and memories, at the colors, smells, and sunlight, at eyes, hands, and words. With practice, this persistent looking can expand into a way of being, a way of living more in the present at all times, a constant noticing. This is the true grace of the writing life. If we can give even a fraction of that to our students through the work of writing practice, we will have succeeded.

Writers become better by writing.

A coach would never teach an athlete a technique once or twice and expect her to be able to perform it perfectly from that point on. Free throws, flip turns, serves and spins are practiced thousands of times each year; so it is with writing. A goal of my new book 50 Writing Activities for Meeting Higher Standards is to give teachers plenty of writing assignments to choose from, to keep students constantly writing. Although rubrics are included with each activity, not everything has to be graded with a formal rubric. Plenty of writing in my class goes formally ungraded but verbally conferenced. It all helps.

Writing makes students read like writers.

When students practice real writing in several genres, they begin to read not as passive spectators but as knowledgeable apprentices. They begin to internalize the tenets of strong writing, and they can sense its presence. Instead of simply saying a text is “good” or “bad,” they can identify the skills employed or the ones lacking. They learn to read from the inside-out, like writers, simultaneously seeing the finished product and its working parts.

Writing as a practice develops one’s voice.

Regular writing about one’s life, observations, reflections, and opinions leads to a strong sense of voice. The writer comes to realize her unique style and outlook. Ideally, the writer also comes to believe that this individual perspective has value, that he has something to contribute to the world. Though each of us is only one voice, we are all important notes in the chorus of humanity. As educators, we must convince students of this by helping them write about their lives and opinions honestly and clearly, and by encouraging them to participate in the larger conversation of our shared existence.

What Happened at #EWA17? Some Twitter Highlights

Last week from May 31–June 2, 2017, the Education Writers Association held its 70th annual national seminar in Washington, DC, inviting the nation's education reporters for a timely dialogue about "A New Era for Education and the Press."

Below is but a sampling of the conversations I picked up on #EWA17, including reaction to the absence of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the declaration by Marty Baron (Executive Editor, The Washington Post) that "education reporting is sexy," ESSA, the achievement gap, diversity and school integration, philanthropy, public and charter schools in DC, and more.

Here's what caught my eye:

The Writing Classroom: Lighting the Spark

I have a brother-in-law who makes a spreadsheet whenever he has a project: “It’s how I think." Interesting, though I confess that doesn’t work for me. I find that ideas are best grasped through metaphors, so here goes:

Teaching writing is like making a fire. You can add all the firewood you want, but unless you leave space for air, the fire will sputter and go out. In the writing classroom the “air” consists of choice, voice, pleasure and play. Those essential conditions make the fire crackle.

What does that look like in practice?

When my youngest son was in fourth grade he had two teachers: Steve Tullar and Pete Schiat. Pete was a retired merchant marine sailor who had come to teaching as a second career. Steve and Pete invented a genre they called Nature’s Eye, where kids could write about the natural world using prose poetry. Using this form, the kids really took off (especially the boys) and got jazzed about writing. Parents were invited to numerous events to hear the kids share what they had written. As soon as you walked in you could feel the energy and passion in that classroom. The kids were invested. 

How did Steve and Pete do it? I think it was a combination of factors:

  • Passionate teachers who were genuinely interested in what the kids had to say. Having male teachers signaled to the boys that writing could be for girls and boys. 

  • A genre that was accessible.

  • A supportive audience.

In a larger sense, the conditions in that classroom embody the elements highlighted in the subtitle of my new book The Writing Teacher’s Companion: Embracing Choice, Voice, Purpose & Play.

Let’s briefly explore them, one by one. 

Choice

Don Graves encouraged teachers to let kids bring their obsessions into their writing. Amen. Kids need to feel empowered to write about what matters to them. And they have to know deep down that they will be received and accepted.

It’s no secret that choice is getting squeezed out of today’s writing classroom. Too often, young writers get funneled into a particular genre (often a persuasive essay), told what to write about, and what elements the writing must include. Where’s the choice?

Don’t despair if the energy in your writing classroom feels lethargic. The best single way I know to energize it is to encourage your students to write about what matters to them. Give them real choice, and get out of the way.

Voice

Voice is the quality in writing that reflects that author’s personality, character, or attitude. All of us are different, so voice in writing is as unique as fingerprints

Is voice related to choice? Most certainly! We need to create classrooms where young writers have the time, space, and support to find their individual voices as writers. 

Purpose

We write for many different reasons: to remember, react, ruminate (perhaps in a writer’s notebook), communicate, goof around, create literature, tell a story, and so on. The classroom should be a place where kids can experience these various purposes. In a writing conference we can ask—“What are you trying to do in this piece of writing?”—not in a skeptical way, but as curious readers. 

Play

Play is an essential part of what writers do when they sit down to write. An essay about fracking might begin with a dash of wordplay: “Fracking is controversial topic that has been drilling into people’s consciousness in recent years..." We must encourage kids to play when they write, and try to be generous when their playful attempts don’t always work (as they often do not).

I would add one more essential condition:

Pleasure

I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy writing (at least most of the time), I wouldn’t be a writer. Let’s do whatever we can to create classrooms, like the one created by Steve and Pete, where kids can say: “Writing is a blast. I can’t wait for our next chance to write.” 

2017 National Advisory Council: Equity in Education—Engaging and Empowering Students, Families & Educators

On May 4, 2017 Scholastic convened its National Advisory Council (NAC)—an esteemed group of educational thought leaders—to participate in a day-long dialogue about equity in education through the lens of engaging and empowering students, families and educators

The 2017 National Advisory Council includes:

  • Brandon Dixon (Sophomore, Harvard University)

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

  • Dr. Walter Gilliam, PhD (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)

  • Jahana Hayes (2016 National Teacher of the Year)

  • 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)

Dick Robinson, Scholastic CEO, opened the meeting with remarks on Scholastic’s long history of inviting leaders in education and learning to join the company’s National Advisory Council. The first meeting of the NAC in the 1930s comprised primarily school superintendents (as well as the poet Robert Frost). Today, our diverse Council represents a wide spectrum of educational leadership.

Robinson emphasized that a deep understanding of the full scope of education necessarily includes knowledge of how schools are organized, what is important to local school leaders, and how the life of the school affects teaching and learning, and kids’ social-emotional and academic growth: 

"We are in the life of the school to help teachers support the child’s learning, and to help engage children in what they’re reading and discussing, to help them understand who they are, who they can be; to touch their hearts, as well as their minds. And how to help them develop the resilience, perseverance, and hope that will encourage them to learn and to grow."

In a panel discussion that followed, the National Advisory Council emphasized the need for policy and infrastructure that supports equity in education; the importance of a student-centered approach for meaningful engagement and deep learning; and the critical importance of building and nurturing relationships between kids, schools, families and communities. 

Q: Please share how your work focuses on equity and enabling every child to reach the stars.

Josh Garcia: Equity is not an episodic conversation, but a relentless fight on behalf of the invisible. Our opportunity to lead will come through teaching students how to think. When you heard Robert Frost’s name earlier this morning, you sighed. But when you heard “superintendent” you didn’t do anything. You have to remember your passion: your passion for literature can be part of a social revolution. Don’t let today be episodic, but let it be the way of your work.

Chris Lehmann: Most kids view school as something to endure, and if they’re lucky, they get one teacher that inspires them. I think we should dare children to do real work in school that matters to them in their world, and in their neighborhoods. Our job is not to empower kids but to help them unlock their own agency. Every child has the right to walk into a school and know that they are cared for. Every child deserves the kind of education that is meaningful and real, and allows them to see themselves as fully active and fully realized citizens of the world.

Karen Mapp: My work is about putting the public back in public education. So I focus on making sure families and communities are co-producers and co-creators of the kind of excellent educational outcomes we want for all of our kids. If we put the public back in public education I think we can reach the equity goals that we all want a lot faster if we keep them on the outside. I have been very inspired to find that there are more superintendents and practitioners who feel strongly that without partnerships with families and communities, they can’t succeed in the work of student achievement and school improvement. 

Walter Gilliam: At the Yale Child Study Center, our work is about asking how we take research around helping children and families, and put it into actionable policy. How do you move that forward? In the process of doing that work, certain things become impossible to ignore, and one is the stark inequities that many children have from the very minute that a child first draws a breath. People refer to education as the great equalizer. But the reality is that the great equalizer is inequitably distributed. How can it fulfill its promise if it’s another place for social injustice to rear its head? 

Brandon Dixon: All of these issues start with conversation and student input. Without that, we won’t be able to move anywhere. So I tell stories; I report for The Harvard Crimson. I think a big part of the effort is telling the stories of education, and helping people understand the value of it.

Jahana Hayes: I have kids who come in to my classroom and oftentimes I am the only one who sees their potential. My job is to help them to believe it, to give them the audacity to believe that they are somebody. That is heartbreaking as an educator, to have to convince children that they are important, that they don’t come in with that already. This is draped in the framework of equity. I have students who come in with a deficit and have to meet the same expectations. As classroom teachers, we get what we get. We have to meet kids where they are. I might have in one classroom a student who has been given all the resources they need, and comes to me ready to learn. And I may have a kid who really doesn’t even understand why they’re there. My job is to deliver instruction to both of those students in a language that they can both understand.  

Q: In the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report, many principals reported seeing an increase in the population of students experiencing barriers to learning in the past three years. What has happened since we had this meeting last year, or over the last few years? Have we moved backwards? Are there new challenges?

CL: Equity requires more resources. To achieve equitable outcomes we have to spend money. As a nation we don’t understand that. And in the last year there’s also been a shift, a feeling of repudiation of who people are as people. And kids feel that. And so we have to teach them, and say to them: Within these walls, you’re cared for, you’re loved, and you can make a difference. You matter. 

JH: I have a unique perspective as a classroom teacher, and I don’t accept that we’ve moved backwards. We can get discouraged by policy and the news, but if kids don’t see someone in front of them who believes in them, then nothing else matters. So as teachers, we have a choice: we can get wrapped up in policy, or we can go in there and teach like our hair is on fire. All that matters is these kids in my classroom. For that small time they’re in front of me, I want to create a space where the kids own that space.

KM: We have to ask what we’re willing to do to make a more equitable world. What are we willing to give up so someone else is able to have more? I think we need to bring this from a 40,000-foot conversation back down to the ground and ask ourselves: Are we willing to step up and not just see this as someone else’s job?

Q: OK, so let’s bring it to the ground. One of our themes is engagement. What does that look like in the classroom?

BD: I think engagement starts within the school context, but outside the classroom. The times when I’ve felt I had a higher stake in my education came as a result of extracurricular work with teachers. Those experiences made me feel like I had buy-in into my education. 

JG: There is a fatal assumption that the equity has to come between 7:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. But if we’re thinking about the whole child, we need to be thinking about it 24/7. We need to engage and honor the education that takes place outside the classroom. Supporting the whole child is thinking 24/7, 365 days a year. And so we need to align our support of kids to this, and honor it not as a classroom credit but as a truly meaningful, authentic learning experience. That’s how you’ll engage a kid.

CL: It bothers me that it’s the extracurricular that inspires us. I want the curricular to inspire us. There’s a difference when we let students have a voice and choice in their education. Teachers can ask three powerful questions every day: What do you think? How do you feel? What do you need? then listen and take action on the answers. That will make the curricular every bit as rich as the extracurricular. 

WG: Learning happens within relationships. When a baby is born, it wants to look at nothing more than a face—that is the beginning of learning and engagement. And later when the child goes to preschool and meets new adults, the child will look at the parent for cues on how to engage with the new adults. If that relationship exists, the child will be ready to learn; and if it doesn’t, it will be rocky. From the beginning of learning, it is all about engagement. 

KM: I am very excited about the Parent-Teacher Home Visit project, where teachers go to the families’ homes, not to check up on them, but to build relationships, and to learn from them about their children. Not only do families feel honored and connected to the school, but biases teachers may have had about families are challenged when they go to the home. When we engage with families, they tell us things about their kids that helps us be the best practitioners we can be. 

JH: This works in high school as well. All my life, I wanted to be a teacher but I struggled a lot in the beginning and realized that the responsibility to educate children does not fall to teachers alone. So I went to businesses, churches and civic organizations and I said, help me educate the children in this community. We have to start looking at it not as what happens in the four walls of the classroom, but in the context of community. We need to look differently at roles and responsibilities. 

Q: Does it make sense for the equity issue that one of the end goals is empowering?

WG: Absolutely. When the curriculum works best, it flows right out of the children’s own interests, creativity, and curiosity. That’s empowering. When children of any age get to help shape the curriculum based on what’s important to them, their families, their communities, and there’s an adult in the classroom who cares about that, and knows that the real engine of learning is not in the curriculum, it’s in the heart of the child—that’s empowerment.

JG: Educators need to learn how to build trust. We have an opportunity to build connections in a thematic way: around social-emotional learning and social awareness. The students are the ones we need to empower, and right now it’s not done in a connected manner. There are just spotlights here and there. I think the opportunity is to enhance the empowerment of our students through trust, and through building trust with families. That furthers the learning on a whole other level. 

CL: That’s where we have to think systemically. We need to create healthier systems and structures in our schools to guarantee that every kid knows they are cared for, and every family knows who their child’s advocate is. So adults have long-term relationships with kids, and educators understand that their professional responsibility is to help take care of these kids over a four-year journey. We can create systems where communities come together, and do it thoughtfully, and devote the time and resources to make it easier for us to care for one another. 

To read more about the 2016 National Advisory Council meeting on equity in education, go here.

Orange Public Schools: Want to Get Kids Reading? Get Everyone Reading!

This academic year in my district, Orange Public Schools, in Orange, NJ—I had a big challenge: I needed a way to get students reading independently. Independent reading can have a powerful effect on literacy achievement, and I knew that this was an important practice that we needed to do regularly in Orange schools. But how to make independent reading part of our district’s literacy culture?

I decided to focus on the concept of modeling: I thought that if students saw adults reading, they would be more inclined to do it themselves. I wanted kids to see adults across the community reading and discussing books, articles, blogs—anything they wanted to read. I pitched my initial idea—which was to involve teachers, and call on the resources of our partners—to the Orange Board of Education Cabinet. The Superintendent, Ronald Lee, loved the idea but challenged me to go bigger. He approached the Mayor and invited him to our next Cabinet meeting.

Before the meeting with the Mayor, the Orange ELA team brainstormed about every aspect of this initiative, from the name to strategies for making it operational. By the time the Cabinet met with Mayor Warren, the team had named the initiative and developed a strong plan for how to promote it internally. The Mayor supported us with ideas on how to engage the rest of the community.

The Orange Public Library Director Timur Davis took over the reins, working with me and Barry Devone, Orange Public Schools Community Engagement Officer, to arrange other signpost events to promote the reading challenge and get community buy-in, such as presenting to the religious leaders at the Interfaith Coalition of Churches meetings.

In an effort to promote reading and increase the capacity and fluency of our students, the Orange Board of Education, in partnership with the City of Orange Township, launched The Orange Page Turners' Reading Challenge on November 17, 2016, with a kick-off event at the Orange Public Library.

The goal of the reading challenge was for the entire community to read one million pages between November 25, 2016 and May 1, 2017. Each Orange Township resident and business owner was challenged to promote reading by participating in one of the online reading platforms. The community embraced the challenge head-on. In December a few of our senior high school students created a catchy theme song to a contemporary hit, which played in all schools to help promote the challenge. “Don't Stop the READING,” was played for all at the January Board of Education meeting.

Stakeholders were updated monthly on our progress and encouraged to participate at local school events where our partners donated books and Clifford the Big Red Dog read to lucky young residents. In the month of March, Scholastic treated Ms. Jones’s 6th grade class to a visit from Tony Brown, NBA Referee, for collectively logging in the most pages of independent reading into one of our tracking systems. One of Orange’s Assistant Principals told me:

“This was just awesome! All of the guests were very nice and genuinely interacted with the children. They got to listen to Mr. Brown read and then he invited some students to read. He complimented the students on how respectful and helpful they were of one another. Then they got into a great question-and-answer session. He autographed everyone's book, and what was most special was that he said he would only do it under one condition: if they would autograph his book, because this was just as much a treat for him as it was for them!"

Top readers were also treated to a NJ Devils hockey game and received drawstring bags to acknowledge their accomplishment and encourage them to continue reading. I am happy to announce that on May 2nd the community of Orange, NJ has logged in 1,029,591 pages, which surpassed our goal! Winners will be announced and awarded at our Literacy Block Party in June. 

With the continued support of the Deputy Superintendent Dr. Paula Howard the initiative was successful. Over the last few months, I learned that my initial hunch was correct: that in order to get kids to read, they need to belong to a community of readers. By creating a shared goal across Orange, we were able to do just that.

Meet the Kids Press Corps

“I’m very nitpicky,” I tell Titus Smith III in the latest Scholastic Reads podcast episode.

Titus is a Scholastic News Kid Reporter, and I am his editor. Editors are nitpicky. So, one hopes, are surgeons. No detail is too small, Kid Reporters learn early. What is the full name of the person you interviewed? What exactly did he or she say? Why does it matter? 

This year, 39 students from around the world have served as members of the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps. They have filed stories about athletes, authors, musicians, and scientists

One young reporter told his peers about Lunar New Year celebrations in Guangzhou, China. Another explained what it’s like to live on a floating hospital off the coast of Africa

Our reporters have spoken with President Donald Trump, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and State Senator Cathy Breen of Maine. They’ve even gone to the circus!

Along the way, these young journalists have honed their writing skills, become more confident, and, in some cases, gotten lessons in punctuation. They have begun to read more voraciously, listen to others more intently, and assess information more critically. They know the difference between fact and opinion.

Kid Reporters also recognize the power of their own words. They are telling the stories of their generation—whether it’s how kids their age are raising awareness about environmental issues or giving back to the community. They are learning that everyone can make a difference!

See Our Reporters in Action

What is it like to be a Kid Reporter? Watch our reporters in action. If you know a 10- to 14-year-old who would like to apply to the program, here’s a link to our application form.

 

What I Learned: My School's Eye-Opening Family Engagement Assessment

My superintendent’s favorite quote is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His next favorite? “Relationships, relationships, relationships. Everything’s about relationships.” And he is right: I have spent the last three years working alongside our staff to build a school culture of joyful learning, whether that learner is a teacher or a student.

The work has paid off in many ways. Our teacher turnover has decreased significantly. Staff members feel appreciated and heard, and our sense of purpose and joy has been renewed, at least on most days!

So when our relationship-driven superintendent called to ask if I would be interested in participating in an assessment to gauge our family and community engagement practices, I was all in! Most of our measures of family and community engagement had revolved around yearly surveys required by our state, and tracking the attendance at various events. While those provided interesting information, I would not say that information moved us forward in any meaningful way.

Although things were going well inside the building, I knew it was time to work on the perception outside the building. Our school is a large Title I elementary school. In fact, 93% of our 830 students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and 52% of our students are from native Spanish-speaking homes. We consider our diversity our strength, but that strength is not without its challenges.

An eye-opening beginning

At the onset of our assessment, our staff and parents were given surveys to complete, but before the results were even in, Jenni Brasington, Scholastic Director of Consultative Services, arrived for the site visit. I had told no one she was coming, but I confess, I did put some mints on the front counter with a sign that said “Thanks for your commitMINT to your child’s education!” To be honest, I was not sure what the building had to do with family engagement. I figured the mints would earn us a few points! Right? Umm…not really. I do not think she was fooled. As we met each other for the first time, Jenni began to walk back through the front doors. “This assessment begins in the parking lot.” she said. “Think about a new parent driving up, parking, and walking up to the front doors. Do you have that image in your mind? Now…turn around.” 

Immediately, my heart sank. I saw it. And it was not good. In fact, it was bad. Really bad. Every single sign on the door was negative. NO Smoking! NO student may enter the building until 8:05. NO loitering. No, No, No. I groaned. Seriously? Why had I never noticed these signs before today? Truly, it was embarrassing! I sure hoped she noticed my mints, because this was not going well. 

I would love to say things got better on the front hall. They did not. As I proudly showed off our displays of parent information brochures, Jenni asked how parents would know the brochures were for them. While the door had a plethora of signs, our brochure display had none. And the brochures were dusty, because no one knew they were free. (No wonder I never needed to replace them.) While these oversights were cosmetic and fairly easy things to fix, the significance of such oversights was not lost on me. We spent the next hour walking our building and talking about how the environment could assist in our efforts to engage parents in student learning.

So, what does family engagement mean in our school?

With surveys and the school visit behind us, Jenni’s final interaction was a professional development day designed to meet the needs of our school. One of the most powerful aspects of the day was an exercise that revealed our beliefs around family engagement. In a high-poverty school, blaming low academic achievement on a child’s home environment is all too easy and can lead to lowered expectations and excuses from staff. I have fought that mindset and felt confident we were winning.

As a result of the training, I realized that our deep belief in our students did not necessarily extend to our families. The survey revealed that we did not give our families enough credit. Including me.

Our beliefs were limiting our results. And our beliefs were a very slippery slope. If we did not believe our parents had the ability to help their children academically, how quickly could we accept that, by extension, our students do not have the ability to achieve? As I asked that question aloud to our staff, I think we all internally acknowledged our conflicting emotions. What better place to start the change process than acknowledging our biases? Jenni gently challenged those biases and beliefs while guiding us to see new possibilities. “Isn’t the very act of getting a child to school every day a form of engagement?” Jenni asked. Well…yes.

As we began to see engagement in a different light, one not focused solely on family attendance at events, but engagement in their child’s learning, we were ready explore and define family engagement in our school.

While we did not end the day with a completely nailed-down definition, we did have some solid takeaways. We circled common words that emerged from each group’s conversation, clarified that family meant any significant adult in our students’ lives, and decided that our definition would be a declaration which started with the words “At Selma Elementary, we believe…" We are in the process of getting parent, family, and community input to ensure that our mission statement is a collective one that represents the beliefs of our entire community.   

Selma Elementary today

Walking into our school today, visitors comment on our multilingual “welcome” word cloud at the entrance that once shouted NO! and the parent brochure display has signs in English and Spanish. Perhaps the quickest change were the bulletin boards that now showcase student work with standards and objectives displayed. While these may seem like simple cosmetic changes, the intent behind each change has been purposeful. We want our community to feel welcome, we want parents to feel supported and valued, and we want our walls to share our greatest priority: student learning.

We have increased the number of pictures and videos that highlight student learning on our Facebook page and Twitter account, and we ask questions in our posts to open up the dialogue between home and school. We are planning student-led conferences—both in real-time and virtually—for parents who cannot attend in person, because as one teacher said recently, “a lack of presence on campus does not equate to lack of engagement.”

And just this past weekend, over 1,100 people attended our first ever Community Day, hosted by the seven schools in our area. Families visited booths about coding, fire safety, plant growth, and a host of other things. The three local town councils and the chamber of commerce partnered with us to make the event a success. New connections were made and commitments for support were offered as we made visible the wonderful things happening in our schools.

With the help of Scholastic, the landscape of family and community engagement within Selma Elementary and our community is shifting.

Click to learn more about the role of welcoming, information and communication in family engagement. 

3 Takeaways for Educators from the Teacher & Principal School Report: Focus on Literacy

Supporting our students in their pathways to literacy is an ongoing effort that that requires us as educators to continuously evaluate our plans, instructional approaches, text selections, and more. To have the most effective and comprehensive literacy plan, it is imperative that we are continuously learning from our peers and incorporating the most current research. Today, I’m pleased to share with you newly released research from Scholastic based on the responses of more than 4,700 educators in the Teacher & Principal School Report: Focus on Literacy. The report explores the views of teachers and principals on the importance of reading, the state of independent reading in school, the home-to-school connection, and summer reading. Based on the findings, here are three main ideas I believe that every educator can consider and use to refine his or her literacy plans.  

1. Find flexibility to include independent reading time during the school day

Ninety-four percent of teachers and principals agree that students should have time during the school day to read a book of their choice independently. Yet, the research also shows us that even with a majority of teachers setting time aside for reading, only 36% do so every day. They also tell us that the number one barrier to this time is the demands of the curriculum don’t allow enough time. Educators who do make the time shared that they see increased student achievement and higher engagement of reading.

The benefits of independent reading are so numerous, that even with these demands, educators must work together to incorporate the time into their days. Allowing for small group instruction during your literacy blocks is an excellent approach. By grouping students together and rotating them through stations as we recommend in our Guided Reading programs, teachers are able to provide independent reading time, one-on-one instruction, and even time for writing. Cross-curricular plans are also important to consider. It is a misconception that independent reading must only be in ELA courses. Science and social studies classes also offer opportunities for this time and with rich, relevant texts such as news articles.

2. Focus on access to books for your students both inside and outside of school

Access to books cannot be stressed enough in order to have an effective literacy plan to support your students. This is an issue that needs to be addressed as nearly half of educators say that access to books at home is NOT adequate for their students—69% in high-poverty schools. The overwhelming majority also told us in the report that they agree schools play an important role in expanding this access. I completely agree. 

To tackle the issue, start in your classroom and school libraries and then expand your thinking to include community partners. Nearly half of teachers can only update their classroom libraries once a year or less and a quarter of principals and school librarians say the same about school libraries. This helps explain why educators also told us they are in need of culturally relevant titles, recently published titles, multiple copies of popular titles, books in other languages, and more. To truly engage students in reading, they need to be able to find the right book for themselves to ignite that emotional spark that makes lifelong readers. We are not enabling that without a proper selection of titles within the schools that students can borrow as they please. 

Outside of our school walls, community organizations can be vital partners in expanding access to books at home, yet only 13% of principals report that they are engaging with the community in this way. This brings me to summer reading, which is the perfect time of year to engage with the community to make the home-to-school connection. 

3. Make literacy year-round with summer reading efforts

Tackling the lack of access to books at home is never more critical than it is during the summer months, when students are most at risk of suffering a loss of academic skills. Sixty-four percent of educators shared with us that they personally encourage summer reading as a way to promote literacy overall—77% in elementary schools. Knowing that the summer slide is responsible for as much as 85% of the reading achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students, there is definitely room for more of us to be sending this message to our students and families. 

The research shows us that educators rely heavily on the local public library as a way for students to get books over the summer. Far fewer teachers and principals report they are able to personally, or as a school/district, provide books for students to take home. This brings us back to the issue of access and I urge us all to think creatively. About one in 10 educators told us they are implementing great strategies to provide books such as hosting literacy events, keeping the school library open and connecting with community partners. With these ideas in mind and knowledge around the use of Title I funds to support summer initiatives including take-home book pack distributions, it is possible to create a robust plan to support your students year-round. And if you think some motivation may do the trick, consider the free Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge where students can log their summer reading minutes online and earn rewards. 

The Teacher & Principal School Report: Focus on Literacy has a wealth of information on the current views of educators regarding the importance of reading. I encourage you to learn more about the data that inspired my three key takeaways and explore the entire report for inspiration of your own. You can download the full report and infographics at scholastic.com/teacherprincipalreport. There, you can also find the additional report, Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education to learn about findings around barriers to learning, educators' funding priorities, family and community engagement, professional development, and more.  

Follow and join the conversation on social media at #TeacherPrincipalReport

Reading Helps Kids Make Summer Count in Greenville, SC

Update, October 26, 2017: Make Summer Count has won the Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award for Excellence for Demonstrating Successful Strategies to Help Prevent Summer Learning Loss. Click here to learn more.

Summer reading is a critical issue for students across the country to help avoid the summer slide, the loss of academic skills that can occur while school is out—responsible for as much as 85% of the reading achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.

To dive deeper into how summer reading activities directly contribute to reducing or stemming this summer reading loss, the Scholastic Research & Validation team teamed up with the nonprofit Public Education Partners (PEP) last year to conduct a new research study exploring the effects of Make Summer Count—a reading initiative in Greenville County Schools in South Carolina supporting summer learning for over 18,000 students in grades K–5 across 29 higher-needs elementary schools. Our findings revealed that by providing increased access to books and family engagement through Make Summer Count 2016, a majority of students maintained or increased their reading levels over the summer of 2016 and that the program had an overall positive impact on students’ reading habits and attitudes

To learn more about the Make Summer Count 2016 research study, download: 

Through this reading initiative, PEP and Scholastic provided participating students with the opportunity to select 11 books of their choice to take home for summer reading. Twenty-three Family Reading Night events were hosted throughout the summer to engage families to support their children’s learning. To evaluate the impact of Make Summer Count, over 9,000 surveys were distributed in spring 2016 and then again in fall 2016 to students in grades 3–5. In addition, 1,897 surveys were distributed to families in the late spring and late summer and 18,300 book logs were distributed to students in grades 1–5 to track their summer reading. 

Here’s what we found:

The majority of students who participated in Make Summer Count did not experience summer loss in literacy skills that is typically associated with students in higher-needs schools.

  • Seventy-eight percent of students in grades 3–5 maintained or increased their reading levels from spring to fall 2016

Students read more books over the summer than the national average.

Students reported a substantial increase in reading stamina and confidence.

  • The percentage of students who read for one hour or more without stopping grew from 13% to 26%.

  • Eighty-two percent of students agreed that they were better readers after the summer.

Families overwhelmingly found the Make Summer Count program to be valuable.

  • Ninety-eight percent agreed that their children were better readers because of summer reading. 

  • Ninety-nine percent of families agreed that the program contributed to their children reading more books over the summer. 

  • One hundred percent found Family Reading Nights valuable for learning about how to support their children’s reading.

As educators across the country look ahead to summer, these preliminary findings demonstrate the powerful relationship between increased access to books and family engagement to prevent the summer reading loss, and highlight the need for not only sustainable summer programs, but also a year-round focus on literacy. 

 

 

 

Tackling Social Inequality through Literacy

As an educator, I’ve seen firsthand that literacy training both helps narrow the achievement gap and is the best tool in addressing social justice issues. As an author, among my most critical goals are showing every child that they have greatness on the inside, and helping them understand how to tap into that greatness.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where educational inequality is still a pervasive problem, and is too often the roadblock in a child reaching his or her full potential. As a society, we’ve made strides towards a more universal understanding—and desire for implementation—of social justice. Now, it’s necessary that we not only make sure our students have equal access to resources, we work on instilling qualities in them that make a priority of promoting and sustaining equality.   

Social Emotional Learning is the first step in understanding social justice. 

Integration of SEL in schools has been focused on teaching skills for personal development, which studies show bolster academic success. Beyond that, social emotional learning is critical in empowering students and teaching empathy, both of which are essential for understanding social justice and being proactive in implementing it. While social awareness and relationship skills are important aspects of SEL, many children are inclined to think about these topics from a limited perspective—their own. We often ask children to consider how bad behavior or social conflict makes them feel, and then apply that to another person or group of people. For children to truly develop empathy, parents and educators have to guide them in understanding the world from different perspectives. One of the best ways to do this is through reading and open discussion, ideally with a diverse group.

Create a shared experience and classroom community through books. 

I believe this is a necessity in any classroom, but let’s be honest—access to books is a huge factor in the disparity of educational opportunity. The ideal classroom library has a wide variety of books, and plenty of them. According to Fountas and Pinnell (1996), a classroom library should contain 300-600 books, depending on number of copies of each book and grade level. Statistically, low-income children have fewer books in their homes and classrooms, and more restricted access to public libraries. We know from the Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education that regardless of school poverty level, 31% of teachers have fewer than 50 books in their classroom libraries. So, how do we make sure all children can explore a shared experience and build a community through reading? By becoming advocates—for our own community as well as the broader educational community. It’s up to all of us to demand that children have equal access to resources.

The first steps in creating a classroom reading community is access to an array of high-quality books, and teachers who are dedicated to implementing a true love of reading in their students. Creating a shared experience relies on teachers providing a forum where opinions, experiences, and questions can be discussed openly and honestly. A child who learns to speak their mind in a constructive way is one step closer to becoming an empowered student—and a social justice advocate.  

Talk about different perspectives, and why each one matters. 

Ideally, children would have ample opportunity to interact with peers of a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. In reality, many classrooms are more homogenous. In every classroom, it’s important to have a truly diverse array of books, not just titles that reflect the majority of students in the classroom. And yet we learned from the Teacher & Principal School Report that teachers need more culturally relevant titles (54%), books with diverse characters (43%), and books in other languages (41%) for their classroom libraries. It’s essential that every child is encouraged to openly and respectfully share their own experiences and perspectives on what they read. This may mean discussing sensitive topics, tackling stereotypes, or fielding awkward questions.

Dealing with reading material that’s outside of students’ understanding is the perfect opportunity to work on both critical thinking skills and true empathy. Explain to students that by thinking through and discussing facts and implications in the book, and doing our best to leave behind our own assumptions and prejudices, we can better understand a character’s perspective.

We live in an ever-changing world, so it’s our job as educators to prepare children to tackle not only current problems, but anticipate the dynamic landscape of our students’ futures. Together, with a diverse collection of books that support social-emotional learning and social justice, we can work to create even more empathetic and empowered educational advocates in the next generation.

 

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