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How to Plan for Recovery (Part 2 of 3)

This past month, I had a minor surgical procedure that required some stitches. While the first day of recovery was painful and the following two weeks uncomfortable, the wound eventually began to heal nicely. If only the school recovery trajectory were as straightforward! The process of helping our students as they return to school this fall might not be as clear or linear as we’d like, but we can be proactive in our approach. Last week, we explored student well-being with these suggestions and strategies. Once we have a well-being plan in place for making sure that kids are all right, we can turn more attention to meeting two central academic areas: math and literacy. This week, we will focus on the latter.

Literacy is Everywhere           

While big hardcover textbooks increasingly become relics of time gone by, they do demonstrate the ubiquitous nature of reading in every school subject. When we think of literacy, we think of English class, but that’s not actually how it works. Contrary to common belief, literacy exists across all content areas. If we can harness our collective power to align instruction by developing a schoolwide literacy goal, students who move from class to class will be able to apply skills wherever they go. For example, if the entire school decides to teach students how to look for context clues with unfamiliar words, they can examine terminology in any class and use strategies they have learned to guess the meaning of new words. Imagine the “aha” moments that will occur when kids see their teachers working together to reinforce a literacy priority. We can gain so much by working together, and by sending the clear message that literacy is everywhere.

Skills Matter           

Do I feel comfortable baking a birthday cake? Absolutely. A wedding cake? I’m not sure my skills are up to that, or how I would figure out how to make a tasty, beautiful wedding cake on the fly that wouldn’t collapse. A culinary arts teacher, however, would know how to provide guidance. It can be difficult for students to determine what they are able to do vs. where they might need some growth. That’s where teachers come in. When we think of literacy, it is important to assess where students are with the four language domains: speaking, writing, reading and listening. We can do that by focusing intentionally on specific core standards when we teach. Suppose we want to determine whether our third graders can read a short paragraph and find the main idea. We can ask them to listen as we read the paragraph out loud, talk about what the topic of the paragraph is with a partner, and then read a list of possible main ideas to identify the best answer. Depending on how they perform, the work students give us over time will give us the accurate data we need to both identify where they are successful and make decisions about where they can focus on improvement. 

Flexibility and Agility            

We sometimes get caught up in doing things a particular way. That might mean teaching specific texts, having certain materials we like to use, or even holding an attachment to a specific seating arrangement. While our teaching preferences do matter, we need to make sure everything we do is backed by a strong instructional rationale. This is not the time to be rigid for no reason. Students will be more successful if we allow them to learn on their terms, not ours. One example might be with how we set goals. When we initially begin instruction, we typically have one particular learning target in mind, but our students may show us upon their return to school that a different learning target is more relevant to their needs. We want to be able to pivot and prioritize the needs that present themselves; without that agility, we will be following an agenda that limits progress. If we are flexible, we can respond in real time to the results of student work and maximize what we learn about their literacy skills in a far more authentic way.

15 Minutes           

In literacy, there is a magic number: 15 minutes. The process is simple: we give kids 15 minutes each day to read a text of their choice. That is all it takes for students to grow their skills consistently. Why a self-selected text? When we let students choose what they read, they are less likely to see the process as prescriptive or punitive. So much of what we do in school is teacher-selected; when we can, giving back some of that autonomy is important. While 15 minutes of instruction feels like a lot of time, we can think about how making that investment pays dividends in the long run. Literacy development is often a fairly slow process, but giving students class time to explore texts on their own will be a lot more useful than drilling them, giving them worksheets, or assigning anything that can be construed as busywork. In addition, the heightened enthusiasm for reading will extend into other areas of class and create marvelous opportunities for discussion.

Equitable Practices           

A sense of belonging is a beautiful thing to have, but so many students do not know what that feels like. It can be so hard to see ourselves in what we learn, and this is even more true for students of color. Inclusion of all students is the most vital step to ensuring growth in any content area, and literacy is certainly no exception. One way to improve our equitable practice with literacy specifically is to make sure we set up structures for frequent feedback from students. We can and should ask about the texts we provide, but we should also get information about what students want to write, how comfortable they feel sharing thoughts verbally, and what they might enjoy listening to. That way, when we gather materials for instruction or set targets for skills of focus, we can both incorporate all language domains and keep what our students have communicated to us in mind so that all voices are included.           

Making literacy gains this fall means engaging all students by keeping our courses high-interest, by being open to the needs that present themselves, and by demonstrating both flexibility and agility with how we meet challenges. Overall, we can make a good start by consciously tabling any presuppositions we hold about what students can or cannot do, or what they may have missed out on over the past year and a half. Instead, if we spend the first few weeks of school testing the temperature and getting to know everyone, we can forge a much more productive and proactive path toward literacy growth. 

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Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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