Search form

Always Strive to Be a Better You

Morphing Your
Elementary School
Into a Literacy Academy


"Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. Our requirements for world leadership, our hopes for economic growth, and the demands of citizenship itself in an era such as this all require the maximum development of every young American's capacity. The human mind is our fundamental resource."

Times have changed since President John F. Kennedy delivered that Special Message to the Congress on Education on February 20, 1961.

Or have they?

Are we in any less dire circumstances in the global economy? Is our position in international relations any less strained? Is our preeminence in worldwide competition any less threatened? Is our need to fully educate every child any less vital to our existence and prosperity?

[content block] The purposes and values of education are many and varied. If you read the mission and vision statements of the tens of thousands of U.S. schools, you will see an interesting blend of purposes and ambitions, playing out in an even wider array of philosophies and mindsets.

Of all the skills we teach our students, of all the lessons we lead, of all the activities we facilitate, of all the barriers we traverse, of all the goals we chase, of all the abilities we endorsethe single most crucial, critical, elemental, important, indispensable, and worthwhile is literacy.

The ability to read, write, and communicate is second to none.

Think about how often we use those abilities. (In fact, what are you doing right now?) On a daily basis we read newspapers, books, magazines, journals, articles, online chat rooms, diaries, movie credits, phone books, TV guides, fliers, advertisements, menus, recipes, street signs, billboards, graffiti, shopping lists, and a million other things. And somebody had to write them.

Many cultures pass along tales and traditions from generation to generation. Ours is a literature-based society. History books, etchings on walls, remnants of papyrus scrolls, chiseled stone tablets, and CD labels define and chronicle our past and future. It is the literacy skills that survive us and allow this transmission of information.

How does this relate to education in the No Child Left Behind era? In this era, like in Kennedy's, education is of paramount importance. And the education that we provide our children ought to begin with the most fundamental, important focus



What I propose is a new definition of our schools, especially those that service the primary grades. We used to call them grammar schools. Now we call them elementary schools. Why not shift the mindset a bit and call them what they really need to be -- literacy academies?

If we are to prepare our students for their citizenship in society, and if we can offer them the foundation of a solid education, and if we can assure them the building-block skills that will allow them the liberties to explore a wide variety of content and information as they grow in years, why not dedicate the crucial first few years of schooling to the teaching and learning of literacy skills, above all else?

Any school can do it. There are model schools that excel in literacy education splattered across the United States, and we can learn from them. What follows is a summary of the key components that combine to provide the structure for turning a garden-variety elementary school into a hub for literacy.

Define your outcomes. As a school community, the first step is rational enough: identify your mission, vision, and goals. Why is a literacy academy an attractive solution for education in today's world? When you have achieved full literacy academy status, what will that look like? What skills will your students possess? What preparation and knowledge will they have acquired? How are they better suited to face the big, bad world as a result of their educational experiences? Answer those questions and you are well on your way.

Focus your professional development. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to a clear concept that guides all one's efforts and he refers to it as the "hedgehog concept." Once you have identified your hedgehog concept, you can begin the work of aligning your staff's professional development with it. Bringing in trainers, offering stipends for literacy-focused action research projects, sending staff to conferences and workshops, encouraging teachers to model and observe each other, offering book clubs, or one of a plethora of professional development options can support the school's mission and vision. The improvement of literacy instruction, with the ultimate goal of increasing literacy achievement, depends on the development of the teachers. They are only as good as they know how to be.

Teach content through literacy. We would be remiss to bypass the important content areas of science, social studies, mathematics, the arts, physical education, and baseball history. Each of those subject areas has its place in the education of every child, and each, surprisingly enough, can be taught through literacy. Success in integrating content into literacy instruction is not contingent upon having a ton of reading materials and every child's individual level for every topic; rather, it involves utilizing solid literacy-focused instructional strategies to teach the content areas. A serious dedication and laser-like focus on literacy-based instructional methods does not preclude a well-rounded education. In fact, it is a requirement of one.

Establish a framework of support and resources. An endeavor as complicated and intricate as this demands all the support and scaffolds you can provide. Challenging the status quo and shifting a major instructional paradigm is not the type of venture one should embark upon solo. Groups of teachers facing similar struggles, equipped with similar skills and confronting similar needs, can make remarkable gains when they put their heads together. When we establish the team-first approach to problem solving, the avenues of learning and growth open up, lending squadrons of educators to work, plan, train, assist, brainstorm, assess, and analyze together towards a common end. Couple the "musketeer" approach with resources -- both financial and time -- aligned to the hedgehog concept, and you have the makings of a true success story.

Share the joy of literacy learning with the entire school community. Have fun with reading, writing, and communicating! For heaven's sake, these are children we're trying to educate, and what do children do better than have fun? Children, not unlike adults and kittens, learn better, perform better, attend better, and live better when they are enjoying the activities in which they are engaged. School should be fun, and a literacy-based instructional approach should be no different. Writing contests, reading challenges, utilizing a variety of reading sources, investigating a variety of genres, recruiting students' input in content areas, word games, literacy-based assemblies, and any of about a billion other activities can spruce up the instruction, rev up the motivation, and amp up the student body. We have no greater calling.

Always strive to be a better you,

Article by Pete Hall
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World