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Building a districtwide literacy ecosystem during the pandemic

At Midlakes Schools in Clifton Springs, N.Y., our literacy programming was a bit inconsistent. Our teachers had varying backgrounds and different approaches to teaching students to read and write. While our teachers were able to align to one another pretty well within each grade, vertical alignment was not as easy as it could have been.

Ours is a rural district with approximately 1,500 students, almost half of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. With a growing population of English language learners, it became more important to ensure all of our teachers were on the same page in delivering literacy instruction they believed in. While the middle of a pandemic may not be the best time to refresh a literacy curriculum, here’s how we did it.

Find out what your team believes in

We began by creating a literacy skills committee, which took a two-pronged approach. First, they did some summer work focused on alignment strategies and best practices for literacy across content areas so that we could all, no matter what, teach from the same page.

We also had a subgroup looking at programs to adopt, beginning with Tier I. We settled on American Reading Co. for our core K-5 reading curriculum, then turned our attention to Tier II and Tier III. We knew we wanted to address foundational skills, such as phonemic awareness and phonics fluency. Many of our teachers had been trained several years ago on a popular reading system, but after so much time, many ended up doing their own thing and combining elements piecemeal. 

We decided to adopt Reading Horizons for Tier III interventions, believing it would bring all of our teachers and interventionists into alignment with one another quickly. We also wanted to use it as a core supplement, especially at the kindergarten level, where students are introduced to letters. We needed the instruction to be consistent from one year to the next, because sometimes it takes multiple years to catch students up, especially as they get older and may fall several years behind expectations.

Our teachers liked the new programs’ online components and the scope and sequence, which addressed one of their biggest issues by covering ground faster than our old system. At the time, the online exercises were just a nice extra for students who needed additional support, although they would come to be much more important during remote learning. 

Extend alignment beyond reading

Before we launched into our curricular refresh, we took a deep dive into possible reasons our math and English language arts achievement scores were not where we wanted them to be. One of the recommendations was to bring the language we used about writing into alignment throughout content areas beyond literacy.

If you walked into a science class, for example, the teacher might tell students to make a claim and back it up with evidence, while the math teacher might ask them to make an argument and back it up with reasoning. “Claim” and “argument” mean the same thing, as do “evidence” and “reasoning,” but the students don’t necessarily know that.

This is more important for students in grades 7 through 12, but it also was still a big part of bringing our younger students and their reading instruction into alignment throughout the district.

We’ve even gone further in standardizing our core literacy program for the new school year. Our new program, which we began using in 2019, provides a framework and allows teachers to introduce letters in any order they like. This year, our kindergarten reading interventionist and teachers got together and decided what order they would introduce all the letters. Previously, an interventionist would have to switch things up depending upon the method used by each student’s teacher. Now, no matter what class the student is in, they will have covered the same letters.

Embrace the science of reading

As we were choosing curricula to adopt, so much progress was being made in the science of reading that many of the companies we evaluated were changing their products as we tried to make our decisions. It was imperative that we chose products that had evidence of success based in the science of reading. 

It’s great that companies are committed to continual improvement, but it can be troublesome in terms of cost to constantly replace materials and invest time for teachers to learn concepts and approaches -- but it’s worth it to ensure we’re using evidence-based practices.

Even educators are never done growing and learning, and we certainly had to remind each other of that as we tried to take aim at a bit of a moving target.

Adapt technology to your needs

We were already a digital 1:1 district before the pandemic, and we have handed out some Wi-Fi hot spots during virtual schooling. Although we’re rural, we are not as rural as some districts I’ve worked in, where no amount of money could have secured internet access for some students. 

Last school year, when we were doing a combination of hybrid and virtual learning, we were fortunate that both our new reading programs had online options. But if we’ve learned anything over the last year, it’s that replacing all the benefits a well-trained, in-person teacher can provide is impossible.

Even though we returned to in-person learning this fall, our interventionists have continued to find the online components of our literacy curriculum particularly helpful for personalized practice. In small groups, if two students are at the same level and a third is at another, we can set the first two up to practice exactly what they need on their tablet while the teacher works one-on-one with the other. 

We have reading specialists who have been working for more than three decades. By focusing on alignment -- with the science of reading, from grade to grade, and across content areas -- they are amazed at the growth they’ve helped students achieve over the last year.

 

Michelle Robinette is the director of curriculum and instruction at Midlakes Schools in New York. She can be reached at mrobinette@midlakes.org. The district is using American Reading Co. and Reading Horizons

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