Monday, September 20, 2010

We Must Speak Loudly

Here we are, approaching another Banned Books Week (9/25-10/2), and the haters are already crawling out of their dank, dismal crevices to wreak their havoc. The current threat against our freedom to read what we choose, and to offer quality literature to students is one Wesley Scroggins. You can read his rant here. He has attacked several books in his letter to the editor, but the one that is causing the troops to rally the most is Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. Laurie has responded to this newest crisis in censorship at her blog: Mad Woman in the Forest. It is a much more satisfying read than Mr. Scroggins'.

Across the virtual world, people are sharing their experiences with Speak to give support to Halse Anderson and to speak out against censorship. I am joining them, because I think Speak is such an important book. Many people can share how this book touched them personally, allowed them to find their own voice and speak out about the problems in their lives that, before reading Speak, had remained buried. That is the power of the written word.

But one does not need to have shared the experiences of the main character in Speak to have a powerful reaction to the book. I used this book the last two years that I taught 8th grade, at the end of the school year when the students' excitement and trepidation for entering high school was beginning to grow. I framed the unit around essential questions of decision-making and consequences. Students examined the multitude of relationships present in the book to see that the problems experienced by the main character were compounded by the decisions, inaction, and apathy of others around her. More than any other book I used in the classroom, students connected to this book. It made them evaluate their own relationships with friends, parents, peers, and teachers. As a teacher, it made me look more closely at every student.

Two instances illustrate the fact that this book truly touches readers. Because I used it at the end of the year, I had students working on their final projects right up until and including ON the last day of school. They did not complain, they worked with great zeal and put forth such effort to create a collage that would capture the theme of the book:

or to write a "letter in a bottle," in a theme-decorated bottle, to tell someone else why they should read the book:

or to create their own piece of art:

Their work showed their depth of thinking and understanding.

The second instance occurred a year or two later. Speak was made into a movie after I used it in the classroom. After it was broadcast, I couldn't even count how many students made a special trip back to the middle school to leave notes in my mailbox. They wanted to make sure I had seen it. Some of them wanted to thank me for "making" them read it, and many of them wanted to tell me that the movie could in no way, shape, or form, compete with the book. Laurie Halse Anderson's writing showed them that a good book can outshine a movie like a thousand suns. She has created many readers with her book.

I ran into my own problems with censorship and Speak. I had a mother who requested her daughter not read it. I had no problem with that (other than the fact that I personally felt she was robbing her daughter of a valuable reading experience...even if she believed it couldn't happen to her child, who's to say it couldn't happen to her daughter's best friend?) But parents have a right to decide if there is something they do not want their child to read. What they should not have the right to do is to attempt to enforce that censorship on other students. This mother tried, taking her complaints to the principal.

Thankfully, he had faith in my abilities to take a tough topic and to make it relevant and appropriate for my students. Many administrators don't have the backbone to stand up to vocal parents. I am proud of the fact that my administrator and the students I taught using this novel have the tools they need to Speak Loudly.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Literacy Coach: My Evolving Job Description

In the past couple of weeks, I've seen some folks on twitter and on the EC Ning asking about job descriptions for Literacy Coaches. I decided to reflect on my work as a middle school literacy coach and open the door to my world a little bit.

I came into this role seven years ago, and it was a new position in the district where I'd been an 8th grade language arts teacher for nine years. The administration didn't really know what they wanted me to do, so I had to figure it out for myself. It certainly feels like, over the years, more tasks have been added yet none taken away. I find myself kept very busy...and that's a good thing!

I work in a middle school that is grades 5 through 8. In the fall of every school year, I administer the Gates-McGinitie reading test to all 5th graders and new 6th graders. I then score, record, and analyze this data (along with DIBELS and STAR information from 4th grade) to set up Literacy Groups. These Literacy Groups consist of 4 or 5 struggling readers who work in small groups with a paraprofessional for 30 minutes a day to boost their reading skills.

After groups and schedules are established, I work with the paraprofessionals to make sure the Literacy Group students are receiving the appropriate interventions. I provide the parapros with professional development through modeling and book and article studies. Once the literacy groups are established, I also administer an Individual Reading Inventory (IRI) to each student. This helps me to target more specifically the areas they are struggling in the most. Teachers will often request IRIs for other students that they have questions or concerns about and I administer these as well. Also, after groups are established, I meet with parapros weekly and between them and me, the students are given the IRI four times through the year. I often step in and lead literacy groups when a parapro is absent.

Throughout the year I organize special literacy events for staff and students. This includes Reading Month/Week, World Read Aloud Day, Poem in Your Pocket Day, Scripps Spelling Bee, Modern Woodmen Oration Contest, author visits, and strategy days for staff development. I like to stay on the look-out for other opportunities to open up the world of literacy for my staff and students. This year I am attempting to establish a writing club for our authors who would like to tackle National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.)

In my building, teachers are on grade level teams and each grade level team has common planning time. This makes it easy for me to get to team meetings to share the latest research and literacy strategies on a monthly basis. From this sharing, teachers will often request model lessons in their classrooms. Monthly, the 5th grade team gathers to use the Tuning Protocol for Looking At Student Work. I come to their meetings to facilitate this process.

I also meet individually with teachers by request to help them plan lessons, to share resources, to be a sounding board, and to schedule model lessons (which also includes a planning meeting and a debriefing meeting.) I analyze our state testing data to determine which literacy skills may cause struggles for students in our building/district. Strategies to meet these deficit areas are often the focus of my model lessons.

I have set up a literacy closet in one part of my room. This closet has over 800 picture books which I have in a database. In the database they are categorized by genre, reading strategy, writing strategy and theme. They are shelved in numbered boxes by genre for ease in locating. All teachers have a copy of the database and access to the closet. Most of the time, however, they stop in to see me or send an email detailing what they need and I deliver it to them.

I am often seen as the resident techie and I try to encourage the use of technology in the classroom. Last year I ran Tech Thursdays where I invited teachers to come in after school one Thursday a month to learn about integrating technology in the classroom and using it for their own professional development. Unfortunately, people seemed too busy and the project fizzled after a couple of months.

It is my job, in the spring, along with the Literacy Coaches in our two elementary feeder schools, to organize summer school. Last summer we provided learning experiences for approximately 140 students in grades 2 through 9. The other literacy coaches and I also plan Parent Nights throughout the year to help parents understand how to help their children with literacy skills at home. We've given out over 300 books at our literacy nights in the last few years. One year we held a family game night. Families came in to play board games and then got to take a game home with them at the end of the night.

Last year, in an initiative through the Michigan Department of Education and Measured Progress, I led a team in the Formative Assessment Process. This team was made up of three high school and three middle school teachers. This year, the high school put together their own team and I added five new members to the middle school team. Our plan is to meet monthly for a couple of hours to learn/discuss/share formative assessment strategies used in the classroom. I am thrilled at the number of my staff members who were interested in joining this group!

I am a member of the data team for our Intermediate School District and I attend monthly meetings for this.

I think that exhausts the list of my current job responsibilities. I have been asked by my superintendent to consider taking on some of the responsibilities of Curriculum Director or Instructional Services Director. It is not something I am excited about, but he definitely has more on his plate than he can handle right now! But at this point I am waiting for him to make a final decision on exactly what it is he wants me to do.

As the financial outlook for schools looks more grim every year, this is a job that I take from year to year. I fully expect that if things don't turn around for our state soon, I will be back in the classroom in the next couple of years. That won't be a bad thing either (for me!)